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Food and Mood

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Date: December 18, 2023

This blog was originally posted on Nov. 27 by Health.gov.

We’ve all heard the popular saying “You are what you eat,” but have you ever paused to think about what that really means for your body, your mind, and your spirit? How can we expand our thinking about the relationship between food/nutrition and physical health care to include emotional health and well-being? Can we develop interventions that move beyond traditional mental health and substance use treatments and incorporate social determinants of health and food/nutrition to better promote mental health, prevent disease, and foster recovery? What policies need to change so that we can prioritize healthy and culturally appropriate food and behavioral health care resources more equitably across the country?

These are the questions that inspired the development of the Food and Mood Project. Over the last several years, regional staff from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — specifically the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH) — and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service have been delving deeply into the impact of food on our mood. The Food and Mood Project aims to promote emotional wellness and reduce the impact of mental health and substance use conditions among the K-12 population by identifying and implementing strategies that address the intersection between behavioral health, food/nutrition security, and cultural food diversity.

A “Gut Check” on Brain Health: The Role of the Gut Microbiome

Of the examples that can be cited for how food may influence our mood, the role of the gut microbiome illustrates the profound interactions that occur in areas of the body that are seemingly far removed from the brain. There is well-documented evidence on the importance and function of the gut microbiome in maintaining our physical health, including metabolic functions and immune system health. There is also a growing body of research on the impact it has on our brain health.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins are examining the brain-gut connection and its effects on mental health. Their work takes a deep dive into the pathways involved in bidirectional communication between the gut microbiota and the brain. They have been examining how the enteric nervous system (ENS), commonly referred to as the “brain in the gut,” is vital to understanding how our food affects our mood — and how our mood can affect everything in our gut. For example, they note that “the gut produces 90 percent of the body’s serotonin and half of its dopamine,” both of which are “powerful neurotransmitters that affect mood, help the mind stay calm and focused, and are natural anti-depressants.” But because this relationship is bidirectional, “changes in our mood can also affect everything in the gut.”

Social Determinants of Health

The physiology of how gut bacteria influence our well-being is only part of the story. More broadly, there are factors that impact everything from access to food to the specifics of our food choices — long before we even eat. These everyday influences are what we refer to as social determinants of health (SDOH). Formally, Healthy People 2030 defines SDOH as “the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.”

National Institutes of Health (NIH) partners are examining one aspect of SDOH in the relationship between cultural foods, healthy gut bacteria, and diet-related chronic disease risks. The health of our gut microbiome is influenced across the life course, as early as in pregnancy. Examining how changes in dietary patterns lead to the increase or loss of healthy gut bacteria may inform the development of guidelines, especially in understanding the influences of “cultural foodways and sociocultural factors (e.g., acculturation).” This understanding can also help in “implementing effective dietary interventions.” Information shared at a recent NIH workshop supports “the notion of diet as a cultural element that is influenced by, among other things, food access, environmental factors, belief systems, history, racial/ethnic identity, and migration.”

Just as positive aspects of SDOH can have positive influences, disparities in SDOH — such as lack of access to nutritious foods — can impact our health and well-being in negative ways. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as emotional abuse, community violence, and discrimination may have long-term negative consequences on our health. Research indicates that young people exposed to 4 or more ACEs were more than 3 times as likely to experience food insecurity in young adulthood, highlighting the need for interventions to include food assistance programs when supporting people who have experienced ACEs, especially emotional abuse.

In 2021, 33.8 million people lived in food-insecure households and 5.0 million children lived in food-insecure households where children and adults experienced food insecurity. Prior research has shown that food insecurity is associated with psychological distress and other mental health outcomes, including depression. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed increasing rates of food insecurity and evidence that food insecurity was associated with an increased risk of mental illness. In addition, low-income individuals experiencing food insecurity were 3.6 and 3.5 times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression, respectively, compared to those who were food secure.

Food and Mood Efforts Underway

Federal and state agencies, Tribal Nations, and community-based organizations are already taking steps to promote emotional well-being through food. The USDA Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative promotes traditional food ways, Indian Country food and agriculture markets, and Indigenous health through foods tailored to American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) dietary needs. The USDA Farm to School Grant Program awards grants that connect students to the sources of their food through education, taste tests, school gardens, field trips, and local food sourcing for school meals. Additionally, other HHS funding has supported efforts that use horticulture, cooking, and nutrition education to prevent and reduce the occurrence of unhealthy coping patterns and mental and physical illness. These strategies build on the growing research regarding how food affects mood.

A Call to Action

Good nutrition is vital to optimal health and wellness, and children need daily fruits and vegetables for healthy growth and brain development. However, silos exist in our health care system when it comes to prevention, treatment, and recovery services between behavioral health and physical health conditions. How can food-based nutrition interventions be incorporated in our health care system to prevent and treat mental illness and substance use disorders across the lifespan? Below, we pose opportunities and invite you to think about ways to integrate Food and Mood into your efforts:

We can all take small steps to ensure families and communities are nourished and thriving. That’s good for the body, the brain, and the soul.