When Food isn’t Making You Happy

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

― Hippocrates, the father of medicine

Ever since human beings evolved beyond simply finding our daily food, to storing it, curing it, and planning it, taking pleasure in our food has become a priority. 

We don’t eat to survive anymore, at least not in the Western world. The amount of food the US wastes every year is proof of that. (If you’re curious, it’s about $161 billion per year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.)

And since we’re eating-for-pleasure, food preparation, food trends, fast food, and junk food are the law of the land. We aren’t nervous about our next supply of nutrients, so we can expand our gastronomical urges from bare survival to an extravaganza for our taste buds – donut milkshakes, triple cheeseburgers with fondue cheese sauce, deep fried pulled pork burritos, etc.

But here’s the catch…

Those foods aren’t making us “happy” like we think they are. They’re just activating the dopamine reward centers in our brains at a much higher rate than whole, natural, and healthy foods. 

In the long term, poor eating habits don’t make you happy. (And you probably already know that.)

Degrading oral health, loss of energy, dopamine crashes, physical limitations, depleted nutrient reserves…

These don’t make us happy.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are foods that do contribute in a meaningful way to regular and natural happiness. 

This is because they are structured with depression-fighting and joy-boosting elements. 

Those essential building blocks deserve our focus.


What It Does: These fatty acids are excellent at regulating and boosting mood because they can easily penetrate brain cell membranes to impact the inner-workings of mood-cells. They can also relieve symptoms of depression and flatten the transition in mood-swing disorders. This is because contained within Omega-3s are the fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are often depleted in people suffering from depression. 

Found In: Mackerel, salmon, seabass, oysters, flaxseed, fish oil, sardines, shrimp, trout, seaweed, chia seeds, walnuts, edamame, kidney beans, etc. 

Vitamin B12

What It Does: This essential vitamin can be referred to as the “energy” vitamin, so a lack of vitamin B12 in the body can effectively present as depression. B12 helps to turn our food into glucose, which the body then uses as fuel for energy. Controlled usage has been shown to significantly improve the symptoms of depression. 

Found In: Livers and kidneys of animals, clams, sardines, beef, raisin bran, tuna, trout, salmon, fortified non-dairy milk, cheese, eggs, etc. 

Vitamin D

What It Does: Commonly called the “sunshine” vitamin, it’s also noticeably low or absent in depression patients. This may be because vitamin D receptors live near brain areas linked to depression, or it might be because vitamin D is necessary for seamless brain function, and without it things can get dark and foggy. 

Found In: Fatty fishes (tuna, mackerel, salmon), beef liver, cheese, egg yolks, mushrooms, oranges, etc. 


What It Does: Flavonoids are phytonutrients — plant chemicals — that populate the cells of fruits and vegetables. In the human body, they serve as anti-inflammatory agents and antioxidants. They also have a strong effect on tackling oxidative stress, which is the imbalance between the production of free radicals and the antioxidant defense response.

You see, studies are finding that since depression affects the hippocampus and frontal cortex, changes in neuronal plasticity and glial cell production in those regions (caused by oxidative stress and free radicals) may be an underlying cause of depression. Flavonoids work to solve that imbalance.

Found In: citrus fruits and vegetables, whole grains, tea, red wine, legumes, berries, etc. 


What It Does: Selenium is an essential mineral and antioxidant, the function of which relates primarily to metabolism, thyroid function, and protection against oxidative stress damage. Studies suggest that selenium plays a role in mood-boosting and relaxation, two things decidedly lacking in depression patients, by reducing inflammation in the brain (a marker of anxiety and other mood disorders.) 

Found In: brazil nuts, fish, shellfish, red meat, whole grains, eggs, chicken, liver, ham, garlic, etc. 


What It Does: L-theanine, an amino acid, can impact chemical levels in the brain, including those of serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol (the stress hormone.) It does not occur naturally in the body, but sourcing it externally has been shown to improve cognitive function, sleep, and relaxation. 

Found In: mushrooms, green tea, coffee, black tea, etc.

Nothing is a one-stop fix — to alleviate depression, everyone needs to take a well-rounded approach.

But because we have the choice of what and how to eat, in a way that no human beings have throughout all of history…
We should make the decision to eat for long-term pleasure… not momentary gratification.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.