Eat well to feel well: how whole grains and legumes can improve your mood

By Jaimee Hughes, Accredited Practising Dietitian

We all know that following a nutritious diet is good for our physical health, but did you know that what we choose to eat also has a big impact on our mental wellbeing? Regularly eating whole grains and legumes can reduce our risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even certain cancers, but research also points to the brain boosting benefits of following a nutritious diet rich in whole grains and legumes. So, with this in mind, we’re sharing the latest insights on how whole grains and legumes can improve your mood.

Why enjoy slow release quality carbohydrates?

Glucose is our brains preferred source of fuel, so it’s no surprise that our blood sugar levels play an important role in regulating our mood.  Whole grains and legumes are both excellent sources of quality carbohydrates, meaning they’re slowly digested and provide sustained brain fuel, helping you feel energised throughout the day. Although foods like white bread and white rice provide an immediate burst of energy, this is shortly followed by a drop in blood sugar levels – known as “hypoglycaemia”. This crash in blood sugar can be  associated with mood disorders  like anxiety, irritability(1) and depression(2,3).

Whole grains and legumes are an excellent source of quality carbohydrates, meaning they’re slowly digested and provide sustained brain fuel.

Can our gut microbiota affect our mood?

Emerging evidence points to our gut health as a possible influence on our mood. The term ‘gut microbiome’ describes the many trillions of microorganisms living in our gastrointestinal tract. Whole grains and legumes, including barley, rye, oats, chickpeas, lentils, baked beans and lupins, are high in resistant starch  a type of dietary fibre that acts as food for the good bacteria in our gut. The good bacteria then produce beneficial substances known as short-chain fatty acids, which may play a role in regulating our mood,(4) among many other beneficial physiological effects,  including supporting our immune system and maintaining overall health.

Whole grains and legumes are high in resistant starch, a type of dietary fibre that acts as food for the good bacteria in our gut.

Can specific micronutrients affect our mood?

Although  it’s often best to focus on whole foods or dietary patterns, there are some specific nutrients that play a role in optimising our brain health..

  • B vitamins: whole grains are high in B vitamins, which are essential for every aspect of brain function(5).
  • Tryptophan: whole grains and legumes are also naturally high in tryptophan, an essential amino acid that’s important for the production of serotonin in the body, commonly known as the feel-good mood-stabilising hormone.
  • Magnesium and zinc: legumes are an excellent source of magnesium and zinc, both of which have been linked with improved brain health.

Bringing it all together

As we all eat a combination of different foods, it’s even more important to focus on whole dietary patterns for a healthy and happy mind. Research suggests that following a Mediterranean diet high in plant foods such as whole grains, legumes, polyphenol-rich fruits and vegetables, nuts, olive oil, as well as fish and small amounts of meat and dairy, is associated with better overall mental wellbeing, increased concentration and lower likelihood of depressive and anxiety disorders(6,7), most likely due to the anti-inflammatory nature of the diet.

Food for thought

Following a nutritious diet rich in whole grains and legumes can contribute to a healthy and happy brain, alongside regular exercise, getting enough sleep and managing stress levels, so upping your intake of whole grains and legumes is a no brainer. Be inspired with our delicious collection of recipes here.

For personalised nutrition advice, we recommend seeking support from an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD). Find an APD near you by heading to the Dietitians Australia website.


  1. Firth, J., et al. Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing? BMJ 2020, 369, m2382.
  2. Gangwisch, J.E., et al. High glycemic index diet as a risk factor for depression: analyses from the Women’s Health Initiative. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2015, 102, 454-463.
  3. Salari-Moghaddam, A., et al. Glycemic index, glycemic load, and depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2019, 73, 356-365.
  4. Taylor, A.M., et al. A review of dietary and microbial connections to depression, anxiety, and stress. Nutritional Neuroscience 2020, 23, 237-250.
  5. Kennedy, D.O. B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy–A Review. Nutrients 2016, 8, 68-68.
  6. Jacka, F.N., et al. Association of Western and Traditional Diets With Depression and Anxiety in Women. American Journal of Psychiatry 2010, 167, 305-311.
  7. Huang, Q., et al. Linking What We Eat to Our Mood: A Review of Diet, Dietary Antioxidants, and Depression. Antioxidants (Basel) 2019, 8, 376.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This