What This Holistic Psychologist Eats In A Day To Boost Mood & Ease Stress
As a nutritionally informed holistic psychologist, I've come to understand just how inherently connected our mind and body are and, specifically, how much our diet can affect mental health and mood. In fact, research now shows that the gut and the brain are in constant communication, as the gut microbiome contributes neurotransmitters1 that regulate the brain's activity, and a number of studies show that there are specific foods and nutrients that fuel our brain in critical ways and contribute to our mental wellness.
What I personally eat to promote mental well-being.
I'm not a registered dietitian, so I'm not going to tell you exactly what to eat, as I believe everyone's needs are slightly different, depending on a variety of factors. Instead, I am going to share my own personal nutritional preferences that positively affect my own mental wellness. I choose my food based on both what feels good to my system and also what is shown by science to be beneficial to my brain and body functioning. Here's a rundown of what I might eat in typical a day.
While I naturally wake up energized and ready for the day, the thing that delivers an extra boost to my mornings is water. Upon waking, I immediately drink a large glass of water that I place by my sink before I go to bed. When we are dehydrated, our internal system enters a state of stress. When our system is stressed, our mood becomes irritable and anxious2. To effectively hydrate, I consistently sip on water throughout the day (instead of chugging a lot at one time), and I frequently add a pinch of salt to my water—both strategies actually help your body's cells absorb more water. As a morning ritual, I also enjoy drinking hot water with lemon.
Breakfast is a brain fuel essential for me. When we effectively keep our blood sugar levels even, we feel less nervous, stressed, and anxious3. Therefore, I feel best when starting my day with a nutrient-packed meal that will help balance my blood sugar levels all day long. I typically scramble up some eggs and spinach in ghee and put it on gluten-free toast, or into a coconut wrap, with mashed avocado (I have a wheat allergy, so I stay clear of gluten to reduce inflammation in my body). The eggs and avocado provide protein, which contains essential amino acids4 that help regulate mood. The ghee and avocado bolster the brain with omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked with depression prevention5. And the spinach packs magnesium into the system, which is associated with enhanced mood6.
I keep lunch pretty simple and use this as a way to pack in loads of antioxidants and phytonutrients for the day. I usually order or make a green salad with lots of steamed or roasted vegetables (carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, anything colorful) and occasionally some fruit. Increased nutrient consumption through natural foods from the earth (think: fruits and veggies as opposed to relying on supplements) is linked with improved mental well-being7.
If I am not hungry, I skip snacking, as constantly putting the body in a state of digestion isn't necessarily beneficial. However, if I feel hungry, I always have a snack with me as an option, knowing that a fueled brain is a happy brain. My easy on-the-go favorites right now are activated nuts, which provide both protein and essential fats that boost brain functioning and mood, or a collagen packet added into antioxidant-rich tea, which helps reduce inflammation, a known contributor8 to mental illness.
I like to get a little wild at dinnertime, opting for wild-caught salmon with wild rice and vegetables. This solidifies the essential nutrients my body needs to feel good—minerals and vitamins through vegetables, proteins, and essential fatty acids. I typically try to finish dinner three hours before I go to sleep. This helps my mental state upon waking, as the body has digested before bed, allowing the system to enter rest-and-relax mode much more effectively during sleep. When we experience this parasympathetic rested state, it sends signals to our brain to feel more emotionally regulated, allowing us to make better decisions and respond to life more thoughtfully.
Additionally, the social aspect of eating is incredibly important to our overall mental well-being. While some meals are inevitably eaten at a desk, on the run, or alone in a kitchen, we are social beings who massively benefit from being in connection with others. So when I want to increase my brain benefits during a meal, I make it a socially connected one and enjoy with friends or family, as social connectedness directly affects our mental wellness9.
How you eat has an effect on your mood, too.
The good news is that eating for mental wellness is less about following a perfect diet and more about connecting to yourself to really get to know how certain foods make you feel. One effective way to do this is to intentionally pause and take a deep breath before eating. Diaphragmatic breathing (aka deep breathing) not only regulates the brain so that it can become more attuned to your eating and digestive experiences; it also enhances digestion10. Breathing before meals and between bites can build your awareness of the foods' effect on your system and mood.
What works for one person won't necessarily work for another.
I avoid certain categories of food because I personally feel the negative effects on my body and mood, and the research supports they have deleterious effects on mental well-being. These three primary categories of food that contribute to anxiety, stress, and mood crashes are sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. That being said, authentic wellness is about listening to ourselves and our inner needs, and some festive moments or celebrations call for a piña colada or a caramel cake.
Like all things related to our health and wellness, there is a high degree of individuality and nuance in what works for each of us. The most impactful way to figure out a nutritional plan that will benefit your own emotional, mental, and physical well-being is by listening to your very own brain, body, gut, and mood. Start tuning in to how you feel after eating certain foods, and that will direct you. We really are our own GPS. Case in point: Studies show that matcha is full of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties11; however, the caffeine makes me feel cranky and crazy. While matcha is a validated healthy option for many, my system and mood let me know it's not the best option for me, so I opt for an herbal tea instead.
Our systems and lives are complex, so by learning to listen, we learn to navigate our own well-being. Because the brain and body are inherently interconnected, we have many access points to support and augment our mental health—and becoming intentional about our choices in food is an effective and empowering place to start.
Ellie Cobb, Ph.D., is a speaker, teacher, writer, and advocate for empowering others to improve their own well-being through scientifically-backed mental wellness and holistic health. With a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Columbia University, a bachelor's in psychology from Princeton University, and certifications in mind-body approaches, she passionately bridges conventional mental health expertise with integrated and holistic wellness to enhance human connectivity and thriving. Cobb is a Holistic Psychologist, Wellness Expert, Mindfulness Teacher, and Human Sparkler. She is also the founder of Grounded & Gold and Director of Psychology for Thankful. She is based in the New York City area.