Eating for Confidence: What to Know

5 min read

Feb. 1, 2024 -- Confidence can be built in many ways -- working out, practicing self-care, being kinder to yourself -- and new research shows that what you eat might have an impact. Specific nutrients can boost feelings of self-esteem by feeding your brain and subsequently affecting your emotions in a positive way. 

A recent study from the Universidad Europea de Valencia in Spain found that both vitamin D supplements and following a well-balanced eating plan like the Mediterranean diet improved participants’ overall mental health. Diving deeper, Polish researchers conducted a research review and found that certain foods can actually be used as a psycho-protective tool. Their study found that probiotics such as Lactobacillus helveticus (found in cheese and milk) and Bifidobacterium longum (found in kefir, sourdough bread, and sauerkraut) can serve as powerful stress reducers, improving mood. 

In a nutshell: When you eat better, you feel better – and this can lead to feeling better about yourself, too. 

"The hormones responsible for the 'feel good' response in the brain are dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. These hormones together are known as DOSE," said Sue-Ellen Anderson-Haynes, a registered dietitian and founder of the wellness organization 360GirlsandWomen. "In order to improve mood, foods that contain certain nutrients are needed to trigger DOSE production. Some of these nutrients are omega-3s, magnesium, vitamin C, thiamine (vitamin B1), folate (vitamin B6), and selenium."

Indeed: Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Innovative Medicine report that the gut produces 90% of the body’s serotonin and half of its dopamine, further stressing the importance of consuming foods to boost those hormones.

But the key to creating the psychological conditions that will maximize positive mood is balancing those nutrients correctly. To do this, you need to look at your diet. 

"It’s important to understand the complexity of the human body and the various pathways in which mental health and ‘feeling good’ can be affected," said Shelley Maniscalco, MPH, a registered dietitian and founding partner of the nutrition support organization Nutrition in Demand. "Dietary guidance has evolved over time to be focused less on nutrients and more so on food group recommendations that ladder up to an overall healthy dietary pattern. Many studies have begun to consider the entire food ‘matrix’ -- meaning the entirety of a food’s structure and nutrients that, in turn, can affect the way that it is metabolized and utilized by the body."

Read on to learn five easy ways to eat for confidence.

Eat More Fruits and Veggies  

You have probably heard this one before: Science shows that eating fruits and veggies daily is important. 

"A Produce for Better Health Foundation consumer research study found that eating fruits and vegetables enhances feelings of life satisfaction and short-term happiness," said Maniscalco. "Specifically, this study suggested an association between the number of days in a week one consumes fruits and vegetables and a person’s reported level of happiness and life satisfaction. Individuals who consumed fruits and vegetables 6 to 7 days of the week said they felt good about themselves and were more confident."

Data from the American Heart Association shows that fruits and veggies can reverse depression symptoms by fighting inflammation in the body. For best mood-raising results, focus on colorful fruits and veggies. 

"B vitamins like B6, and folate, found in green leafy veggies and citrus fruits, increase serotonin production, which boosts cognition," said Anderson-Haynes. "Also, vitamin C, found in kiwi, oranges, and lemons, is essential for the production of oxytocin." 

Focus on Foods Rich in Omega-3s 

Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids may help to raise feel-good emotion by having a positive impact on the central nervous system. Eating fish at least twice a week is a good way to up your intake. Plus, "omega-3s found in fish, nuts, seeds and are touted for not only reducing inflammation in the body, including the brain, but it also improves mood, reduces stress, and [improves] cognitive function," said Anderson-Hayes. 

Make a Grocery List for Confidence 

At the grocery store, resolve to limit your purchases of processed foods. Instead, stock your shelves with foods that will give you that take-on-the-world frame of mind in the healthiest way. For instance, eat healthy carbs to raise your serotonin levels. The Mayo Clinic recommends oatmeal, quinoa, whole-grain breads, and whole-grain cereals.

Vitamin D is also great for boosting confidence-building brain chemicals, so make sure you have yogurt and eggs on the regular. A Turkish study found that vitamin D’s antioxidant properties may reduce anxiety and depression. And nut fans should try walnuts: Research has shown that walnuts are packed with alpha-linolenic acid, known for boosting brain health and potentially alleviating depression symptoms. 

Additionally, salmon and raisins are good sources of magnesium; thiamine can be found in fortified cereals and bread; and Brazil nuts are a good source of selenium. 

Spice Up Your Diet 

Exercise isn’t the only way to release endorphins. 

"You can also get an endorphin release by eating spicy food," said Anderson-Haynes. "Endorphins help to relieve stress and pain, but it also plays a role in building self-confidence." 

Healthy options include jalapeno peppers, curry, and vegetarian chili. 

Adjust Your Mealtime Behavior 

Eating food with the right nutrients may not be the only way to boost your confidence at the table. A recent Australian study found that three additional factors can influence positive feelings regarding food consumption. 

The first: If you’re eating with other people you like or with family, you’re more likely to feel better about yourself than if you’re dining solo. 

Next, if you have the financial resources to buy quality food and the time to prepare it well, you’ll feel more positive, so focus your food budget on inexpensive, fresh produce that’s delicious and can be adapted for multiple recipes. 

And lastly, if you eat foods that remind you of happy times in the past, that feeling of nostalgia can increase your feelings of joy, according to the study. But don’t binge on sugar. Instead, treat yourself to healthy favorites. (Remember that peanut butter and banana sandwich your mom used to pack you for lunch?) 

Eat wisely and give your personal power a kick start.