Eating Well to Boost Your Mood and Cognitive Performance

Deep dive into ingredients and foods recommended for a healthy mind.

14 Dec 2020

6 min

#Blog #Global #Mental Wellbeing #Active Lifestyle

The old saying “you are what you eat” never stops ringing true and as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shine a spotlight on the importance of health – both physical and mental – many of us have taken this time to rethink our diets. 

For those who are after products that can support mood and help alleviate anxiety and nerves, there is a need to look beyond comfort foods, which are typically considered stress relieving.

While seeking comfort food may counteract stress in the short term by creating a quick psychological buzz, they can also lead to bad health when consumed over extended periods as they tend to contain high levels of salt, sugar, and fat. Emotionally, consumers may also feel self-conscious and guilty as such foods have little to no nutritional value and contain empty calories.

Majority of US consumers believe the foods, beverages and drinks they consume have medicinal benefits; nearly 40% say their belief in this has become stronger in the last 2 years.

Healthfocus International, 2020

In the second part of our special content series on Mental Wellbeing x Nutrition, we’re taking a deeper dive into the common ingredients and foods that are recommended for a healthy mind and body.

Dairy Foods & Ingredients: An Essential Source of Nutrients

While the jury is still out on whether sipping a warm cup of milk before bed can help to calm the mind, there is emerging scientific evidence showing the ability of certain dairy components to improve mood and emotion, as well as overall mental wellbeing.

Man holding up a white PET bottle to drink

A new and exciting area of research suggests certain probiotics, i.e. live micro-organisms that support health, may help to manage some common mental wellness conditions. 

Specifically, consumption of dairy-derived probiotic strains such as Fonterra’s Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus HN001 - LactoB HN001TM were found to support the management of depression and anxiety in women after giving birth1

The probiotics influence the composition of beneficial bacteria in the gut, which promote positive responses to the brain and in turn benefits a person’s mental health through the gut-brain axis.

How can we best consume probiotics?

Common ways to consume probiotics include supplements and yoghurts.  


They serve as a good delivery format as most probiotics are sensitive to high temperatures and cannot be used in products that require heat during processing or consumption in order to be delivered to the gut alive.

While the connection between what people eat and the messages that are sent to the brain via microbes in our gut is complex, it is a component of overall good health. Therefore, including specific probiotic strains in diets has emerged as a way to support mental wellness.

Other components of dairy may also support stress management in adults.  Such components include milk phospholipids such as phosphatidylserine, which are complex lipids naturally present in milk as part of the milk fat globule membrane (MFGM).

Did you know?

MFGM and its components, such as milk phospholipids, support brain development and cognition in infants and emerging research suggests it can be beneficial for adults too.


Concentrations of phospholipids, which are fundamental building blocks of our brains, decline as we age2, potentially impacting cognitive functions such as mental alertness, focus and concentration. 

However, phospholipids can be supplemented through foods and digested dietary milk phospholipids are easily absorbed by the body. Consumption has been shown to help manage the effects of stress by supporting mental performance to stay focussedand positive4.

To provide additional health benefits to consumers, milk phospholipids can be incorporated into supplements and protein fortified foods, such as nutrition bars and ready-to-mix powders.

Fruit & Vegetables: The Basis of all Healthy Diets

Fruit and vegetables are an essential part of a nutritious and well-balanced diet and are crucial in reducing our risk of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. What is not as well-known is the positive relationship between such produce and our mental wellbeing.

Not only do they contain complex carbohydrates that help to stabilise moods, but fruit and vegetables also provide the fibre needed to support a healthy gut environment, which has increasingly been linked to positive outcomes for one’s mental health5

Adults who consumed five to seven servings of fruits and vegetable daily were 14 per cent less likely to experience stress than those who consumed one serving or less6. Subgroups such as berries, citrus and green leafy vegetables may also lead to higher levels of optimism, higher belief in self-capability, and protect against depressive symptoms.

Related reading...


Probiotics: Key Ingredient for Digestive Health and Wellbeing


Why Dairy Nutrition is Critical for Mobility


How Whey can help boost your Immunity

Seafood: An Underrated & Overlooked Category  

Fatty fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon, and sardines are an ideal option for people managing mental conditions or who wish to improve their mood, as they are rich in Omega-3, Vitamin D and nutrients that have been shown to be essential to brain health.

Omega-3s, in particular, have shown promise for treating mood disorders such as depression, although more research needs to be conducted to determine the exact effects on different individuals7. There are also some potential complementary cognitive benefits when sources of MFGM and Omega-3s are consumed together8.

Shellfish, although less commonly known, are loaded with vitamin B12, zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium, all of which can help boost mood. Low intakes of zinc, copper and manganese were found to be associated with depression and anxiety symptoms in a study conducted on Japanese workers9.

The Mediterranean diet is commonly referred to when discussing the benefits of seafood, particularly in recent years as it continues to gain mainstream popularity. Inspired by the eating habits of Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy, the diet recommends fish and seafood as the animal protein of choice alongside the consumption of a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

In addition to reducing the risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes, which has been widely recognised, adhering to a Mediterranean diet could also help lower the risk of depression10.

Develop New Products with Mental Health in Mind

As more consumers recognise the importance of mindful eating to support their mental and physical wellbeing, there has been a notable shift away from unhealthy snacks. 


of respondents actively look for healthy snacks that are low in sugar/salt and are organic

Nielsen Snacking Study

1 in 3

respondents are willing to pay a premium for healthy snacks (low in sugar/salt and organic)

Nielsen Snacking Study

In the US, consumers look for healthy snack options to support energy levels and maintain a healthy lifestyle, with young women turning to them to feel good throughout the day and cope with stress and anxiety11.

Coupled with a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting diet is as important to mental wellbeing as it is to physical health, foods that reduce anxiety, improve stress management and promote sleep now have as much traction as those that support immunity.

While consumers have traditionally relied on conventional drugs to relieve stress and anxiety, they are now turning to nutrition for mental health. American consumers, for instance, expressed greater interest in functional food and beverages over supplements to enhance their mood and cognitive performance12. The same sentiment is echoed in Japan where the majority (88 per cent) prefer to consume health-enhancing ingredients through food13

To adapt to new consumer needs and capture demand, companies should expand their portfolios to include products containing functional ingredients that are able to support fast-emerging holistic wellness goals.

Ready to learn more?

Explore how you can incorporate functional ingredients within your products when you download our product concept cards, each one specially designed by Fonterra's research and development team and made with NZMP Milk Phospholipids 70


  • [1] Slykerman, R. F., et al. (2017). Effect of Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 in Pregnancy on Postpartum Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Randomised Double-blind Placebo-controlled Trial. EBioMedicine, 24, 159–165.
  • [2] Kosicek, M. & Hecimovic, S. (2013). Phospholipids and Alzheimer’s Disease: Alterations, Mechanisms and Potential Biomarkers. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 14(1): 1310–1322.
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  • [7] Appleton, K.M., Sallis, H.M., Perry, R., Ness, A.R., & Churchill, R. (2015). Omega-3 fatty acids for depression in adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
  • [8] Tomé-Carneiro, J., et al. (2018). Buttermilk and Krill Oil Phospholipids Improve Hippocampal Insulin Resistance and Synaptic Signaling in Aged Rats. Molecular Neurobiology, 55(9), 7285–7296.
  • [9] Nakamura, M., et al. (2019). Low Zinc, Copper, and Manganese Intake is Associated with Depression and Anxiety Symptoms in the Japanese Working Population: Findings from the Eating Habit and Well-Being Study. Nutrients, 11(4); 847.
  • [10] Lassale, C., et al. (2018). Healthy dietary indices and risk of depressive outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies, Molecular Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1038/s41380-018-0237-8
  • [11] Mintel, Better for you snacking US, December 2019.
  • [12] The Hartman Group, Functional Food & Beverages and Supplements 2020 report
  • [13] GlobalData, 2017 Q4 global consumer survey

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