Is there really such a thing as ‘good mood food’?

Bringing new meaning to the idea of trusting your gut, world-leading Irish research is exploring the link between what we eat and how we feel.


Good mood food. We often conflate it with comfort food, which can be anything from a hot bowl of soup to a creamy pasta dish. In scientific terms, however, it refers to food that can improve your mental health and overall cognitive function.

The ‘good mood food’ theory is supported by The Psychobiotic Revolution, a 2017 book based on the research of two scientists, Prof John Cryan and Prof Ted Dinan. Their research is conducted in conjunction with APC Microbiome Ireland, a research centre investigating how the vast ecosystem of micro-organisms in and on our bodies can influence our health.

The psychobiotics they refer to in the book are the microbes (bacteria) in your gut that supposedly boost your mood. Apparently, the more variety you have, the better you feel. And this isn’t just about physical health.

“We have shown that people who are clinically depressed have less diversity in the bacteria in their gut than people who are not depressed,” claims Ted, based on the results of their clinical trials.

John believes they have proven the theory that “a healthy gut is connected to a healthy mind”, and that changing your diet can ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Fact or pseudoscience?

This relationship between gut health and mental health has been explored in ensuing studies and, while there is evidence to suggest our intestinal bacteria does indeed play a major role in “gut-brain axis communication”, limitations have also been noted and it’s clear further research is needed.

Sarah Keogh, a registered dietitian and founder of Eatwell, reminds us that the link between our brain health and gut microbiome is still just a theory and we have a long way to go before it’s fully confirmed. “We’re probably 100-odd years off really understanding gut bacteria; we haven’t even identified most bacteria in the gut.”

However, she agrees that the existing research is heading in the right direction and supports the concept that nutritionally rich food can have a positive impact on your wellbeing: “When [our gut bacteria] are nice and healthy and well-fed, they are producing compounds that may be improving mental health, or at least supporting it.”

It’s important to remember that correlation does not imply causation. While the mentally healthy people studied may have had more diversity in their gut microbiome, that does not necessarily mean that’s the reason they are mentally healthy.

So, science may have determined that people who eat fermented foods have a greater variety of gut bacteria, but that doesn’t mean that a diet filled with yoghurt, cheese, sourdough, kimchi and kefir will make you happier. “We speculate that that’s very beneficial [but] again, specifically to say ‘yoghurt is going to improve your mental health,’ we’re definitely not there yet,” Sarah cautions.

But the catchiness of the ‘good mood food’ catchphrase makes it ripe for manipulation in the influencer era, where people will happily latch on to TikTok trends whether they are accurately representing the science or not. Wellness is a trillion-dollar industry, and there will always be people eager to cash in on your desire to achieve holistic wellbeing.

And so we come back to the question at hand: is there really such a thing as good mood food? We cannot say for sure yet but signs suggest that it’s likely. And if we want to trust the available research, it might be worth a try.

Which foods might be best for your brain?

Bad news for those who hate fish, because it loves you. Fish is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12, which have been linked to improved brain function.

Sarah confirms that fish is a bona fide superfood: “There’s lots of studies showing that when people eat fish or use fish oils, it improves symptoms of things like anxiety and depression. It can also support good concentration and good memory.”

Given the current data, the Irish government has recently been urged to promote the benefits of fish and combat its low consumption level in the country.

Another research-backed recommendation is to increase the amount of fibre in your diet. “Everybody thinks they’re eating enough fibre and it’s rare that anybody is because there’s less fibre in foods than people expect,” says Sarah.

Peas, beans and lentils are particularly high in fibre and can be easily added to a meal to bulk up your daily intake. Black beans, for example, go great in chilli and you can swap out your weekly chicken curry for a tasty red lentil dahl. Raspberries win in the fibre-heavy fruit ranking, so you should consider adding a handful to your morning porridge or smoothie.

Though it’s tempting to dismiss the idea of good mood food as pseudoscience if it doesn’t give you an immediate boost, Sarah advises to be patient. “Give it three months. Nutrition doesn’t work instantly; it’s not like taking a drug or medicine where you get an instant result.”

If you’re interested in adding more superfoods to your diet, check out Rheal Superfoods where you can take a quiz to receive tailored recommendations.

Shelly Madden
Shelly is an experienced writer, editor, content manager and Wordler who has covered everything from tech to tiny woodland creatures. Based in Galway, her hobbies include sea swimming, crosswords and agonising over whether or not to use a hyphen.

Get your daily dose of dara & co

By clicking Subscribe, I agree and accept the Terms & Conditions of dara & co.