Salmon on a bed of green salad on a grey plate.

Can the protein-rich dopamine diet make you happier and stronger? We asked an expert

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What exactly is the dopamine diet and can it help you eat yourself happy? Here’s what an expert has to say about the popular diet.

In the pursuit of peak wellness, food has gone from simply powering muscular function to a tool used to target the brain’s neurotransmitters into emitting a cocktail of happy hormones, and dopamine seems to be taking centre stage.

Fuelled by the health and fitness industry’s pivot to a more holistic approach to wellbeing, it’s almost as though we’re being sold the idea that you can eat yourself happy, through mindful cookbooks and meal plans that promise to do more than just fuel our workouts and fulfil our hunger.

It’s no secret that certain foods, such as probiotics, can elicit specific hormone responses that aid in regulating our moods. But the dopamine diet is the more-recently popularised way of eating, which relies on studies that suggest high-protein foods act as mood modulators and can therefore be used in the treatment of common mood disorders. “This is because dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is involved in the reward and pleasure processes in the brain. When we eat dopamine-promoting foods, we increase our dopamine levels and feel pleasure or happiness,” says Christina Mamada, in-house nutritionist at supplement brand Vitl

But how much of a happiness hit can you really get from your diet?

What foods can you eat on the dopamine diet?

If the mere mention of the word ‘diet’ fills your mind with images of bare plates and bland food, fear not. The dopamine diet focuses on eating whole foods with high-protein and high-fat nutritional profiles.

Staples on this type of eating plan include omega-3-rich fish, dairy, nuts and eggs. “Protein-rich foods contain amino acids, one of which is called tyrosine; this chemical is essential to the synthesis – the process that helps us feel the effect – of dopamine.” says Mamada.

Despite how popular dopamine diet cookbooks are, she advises seeking the help of a nutritional therapist if you decide to adopt it because we all synthesise dopamine differently – and will therefore require different food quantities.

Can you eat yourself happy?

The science says you can. In fact, we enjoy an immediate dopamine high after eating but it’s not long-lasting. The nutritionist explains: “Our dopamine increases after eating any food, especially when we’re very hungry. And this goes back to it being a pleasure-response hormone.” Although it’s difficult to get an exact estimation, the dopamine high is “approximately five to 10-minutes long.”

Modifying your current eating habits to chase the dopamine high will also yield results, but she advises that if you’re seeking a substantial enough increase in the mood-lifting hormone to treat a common mood disorder, only a nutritional therapist can gauge the specific quantities you need to consume because each of us synthesises the happy hormone differently.

In the meantime, to ascertain the effectiveness of the dopamine diet, you could look at the popular Mediterranean diet – which, she says, “shares a lot of common foods, like dairy, yoghurt, meat, oily fish and legumes. So you naturally get lots of dopamine production without restricting yourself.”

Studies report that people who follow this type of diet enriched with omega-3 fatty acids and leafy greens, have repeatedly “demonstrated significantly greater improvement” in depressive symptoms.

As for the earliest you can expect to feel the mood-lifting effects of adopting the happy diet, Mamada says: “It depends on the individual’s genetic predisposition to dopamine release, but normally we would say from two to four months would give us an accurate reading.”

Can the dopamine diet make you stronger?

If you’re loading up on protein to increase your strength and muscle mass, you may already be enjoying the benefits of the dopamine diet. But, although eating more protein is key to building strength, eating an excess of the nutrient for mood-lifting purposes could have an adverse effect on your training. The body’s main source of energy is the glucose it gets from carbohydrates. Essentially, carbs power us through difficult workouts, fill us up and in most cases promote a healthy gut.

While the dopamine diet isn’t in direct opposition to a regular balanced diet that includes carbs, eating specifically for an excessive dopamine release calls for a higher protein intake and a lower carb intake.

Mamada says this could be detrimental to your strength goals: “If you follow a very strict dopamine diet, the objective would be to eat mainly protein and to dramatically reduce any intake of sugar and carbohydrates aside from some fruit and leafy vegetables. However, this is unsustainable because you absolutely need to eat carbohydrates before your exercise in order to have the energy to run and workout.“

The nutritionist adds, “If our bodies don’t have glycogen (from carb-rich foods) to reach for – which can happen on the dopamine diet – your body can start burning muscle for energy.”

Your best bet, she says, is to follow “a more holistic approach and choose dopamine foods to compliment your overall wellness, rather than the other way round.”

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Image: Getty / Anna Kurzaeva

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