This post is a continuation of “The Mood Food Connection” Part 1: Emotional Eating.
It’s a very common behavior. Many people snack when they’re feeling anxious, depressed, lonely, angry or just bored. Or they eat as part of a celebration or social event. We call this “emotional eating.” If it happens only occasionally, there’s usually no harm, but if it becomes a pattern, emotional eating can cause real health problems over time.
There are really two issues involved. The first issue is that eating when we’re not really hungry can lead to unhealthy weight gain. The second is that when we eat for emotional reasons we tend to reach for calorie-dense “comfort foods” that are usually high in fat, sugar or salt and that aren’t very good for us nutritionally. Why do we do this? It turns out that there are both physiological and psychological reasons why some foods just make us feel better, at least in the short term. This article describes some of these reasons and offers a brief guide to “mood boosters” and “mood bombers.”
The Physiology and Psychology of Comfort Foods
Scientists who have studied the connection between mood and food for years have found that the foods we eat can indeed have a strong influence on our state of mind. This is not surprising when you consider that the basic job of our digestive system is to turn our food into a cocktail of chemicals (nutrients) that the body can use to perform its many functions. The foods that go into the process determine the chemicals that come out, and the body (including the brain) is affected as a result through mechanisms like brain chemistry and blood sugar levels.
Fatty, sugary and salty foods are delicious and tend to activate the reward centers in the brain. The neurotransmitters most responsible for mood (such as serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine) are all affected by what we eat. Short-term fluctuations in blood sugar can also trigger mood changes. For instance, low blood sugar can make us feel tired and irritable, while too much sugar can make us feel hyper or jittery.
From an early age, we also begin to establish psychological connections that define the roles of food and our relationship with it. Food-as-soother (the lollipop after skinning your knee), food-as-reward (the ice cream sundae after getting a good report card) and food-as-celebration (the birthday cake) are all great examples. Some types of food may also be closely associated with happy childhood experiences. Many people have fond memories of popcorn at the movie theater with mom, hot dogs and soda at the ballpark with dad, cookies on Christmas Eve and s’mores around the campfire with friends. These kinds of associations stick with us as adults.
So it’s the combination of physiology and psychology that causes many of us to seek out comfort foods when we’re confronted by difficult life events (divorce or job loss, for instance) or day-to-day stress. They give us an emotional boost when we need it. However, research has also shown that the short-term mood boost comes with longer-term costs. The longer and more frequently we rely on fatty, sugary or salty foods to regulate our emotions, the less well it works and the worse we feel after the initial euphoria wears off. And then there are the health problems that come with regular snacking and a generally poor diet.
Mood Boosters and Mood Bombers
The best advice we can offer when it comes to mood and food is to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. At the same time, there are some types of food that can help regulate and improve your emotional state without causing longer-term health problems. Here are some mood boosters:
- Healthy carbohydrates (such as those in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains) assist in the production and absorption of tryptophan into the brain. With the assistance of B-vitamins, tryptophan is important for the synthesis of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can boost mood. A study performed by scientists at Arizona State University found that a very low-carb diet caused feelings of fatigue and discouraged overweight subjects from exercising.
- Sticking to a low-glycemic diet, in which the sugars from food are released slowly into the bloodstream, can keep your mood on a more even keel.
- Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help to ward off depression and reduce anger and irritability. Researchers believe that omega-3s enhance the pathways of important neurotransmitters. Study subjects who suffered from depression were found to have low levels of omega-3. Eating fatty fish such as sardines, mackerel, herring and salmon, three times a week can help you get a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acid.
- Foods high in vitamin D (fortified milk, sardines) and selenium (seafood, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, lean meat and whole grains) can also boost feelings of happiness.
- Just a little bit of dark chocolate (1.4 oz.) can reduce the levels of cortisol and catecholamines (stress hormones) in the body. Just don’t overdo it, since too much sugar can negate chocolate’s beneficial effects.
Just as some foods can improve your mood, there also foods that you should avoid eating. These are mood bombers:
- Foods that contain refined flour and sugar—simple carbohydrates—tend to spike blood sugar and cause a subsequent energy and mood crash.
- Large amounts of caffeine, alcohol, hydrogenated oils and artificial additives have all been shown to contribute to anxiety, depression and difficulty concentrating.
If you’re interested in learning more about how the food you eat can improve your mood as well as your overall health, call or visit our office today!