If your young athletes seem moody, there are hundreds of potential causes, from stress at school to pre-game nerves to a fight with a friend. One way to help boost your athlete’s mood naturally—no supplements required—is through diet. Of course, not every problem can be solved with a snack, and these foods can’t take the place of medical or psychological help in certain cases, but a dietary check-in might make a major difference for standard moodiness.
Consider adding these food groups to your athlete’s diet for a simple mood boost.
Many people know that Omega-3 fatty acids are critical to brain health and development, but it may be surprising to know that they can also potentially help lower levels of depression. In one study, consuming fatty fish like salmon—one of the top sources for Omega-3s—was shown to reduce symptoms of depression. Omega-3s can also be found in nuts, including walnuts, flaxseed and chia, so sneaking a teaspoon of chia or flax into a smoothie or salad dressing might be best for picky eaters. And don’t skip the yolks when scrambling eggs: The fat found in the yolk of free-range eggs is high in Omega-3s and other mood-boosting micronutrients.
In recent years, research has shown a direct link between a happy gut and a happy brain. To build a healthy gut microbiome—including the bacteria that help break down food and keep your body running the way it’s supposed to—it’s important to keep a high level of good bacteria in the gut. Probiotics have become more popular in the last few years, but you can save money and add serious flavor to any meal by adding fermented foods that are naturally packed with good gut bacteria. Add a scoop of kimchi or sauerkraut at dinner, mix kefir or yogurt into a smoothie, or swap a sparkling water for kombucha to add probiotic-rich foods to your athlete’s diet.
The micronutrient tryptophan is key to production of serotonin, a feel-good hormone in the brain. It can be found in egg yolks, as well as most nuts, including almonds, cashews, and walnuts. It’s also in sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds. Certain nuts, such as almonds, also provide other key micronutrients for optimal brain function, like selenium.
Like probiotics, fiber-rich foods help keep the gut in balance by feeding those good bacteria and helping ‘clean out’ the digestive tract. Short-chain fatty acids are created in the gut by good bacteria when they’re being fed enough fiber, and one study showed that those short-chain fatty acids might help decrease stress and anxiety. You don’t need a supplement to add fiber, just pack your athlete’s diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
When your athlete is racing for the bus or sprinting to an early practice, breakfast is often an afterthought. The meal gets skipped entirely or become ultra-processed and high in sugar. And while chowing down on ultra-processed snacks will cause an immediate spike in blood sugar that may temporarily boost your athlete’s mood, the crash that will come afterwards will send them right back to being grumpy.
Meanwhile, eating a good-quality breakfast has been shown to improve quality of life and decrease rates of stress and depression in adolescents. Focus on providing a breakfast that’s rich in protein and complex carbohydrates: Whether your athlete slurps a smoothie on the go or sits down to an egg-and-veggie scramble, their day will be smoother as a result.
Not all of your athlete’s emotional turbulence can be solved by good nutrition, but there are some foods that may help boost their mood while also keeping them sport-ready.