Food for Thought


The Food and Mood connection is real

No one needs a scientist to tell them how mood can influence what they eat. Just think about it– what quick food choices do you make for dinner if you are stressed or depressed? Bagels? Boxed mac & cheese? Frozen Pizza? If you crave steamed broccoli after a long stressful week, you are probably the exception.

A survey on “The Burden of Stress in America” conducted by the NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health in 2014 found that 39% of respondents reported eating more when they were stressed. Many of us know this as emotional eating, and comfort foods is what we turn to. Comfort foods are mostly processed foods high in sugar, fat, and calories, with low amounts of the core nutrients that our body needs to function. Certain food choices may quickly satisfy a craving but are they really helping our mental health in the long run? Maybe that steamed broccoli is what our body is really craving if we are listening to it correctly.

Mood is defined as a feeling, state or emotion that can influence one’s mental state. According to the World Health Organization, mental health is “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”  Depression, irritability, fatigue, stress, anger and other unstable moods that can get in the way of this “state of well-being”.

How does food affect my mood?

Research shows that eating a nutritiously balanced diet can actually have a positive impact on our mental health along with our physical health. It is all connected. Nutrients directly influence mood and behavior through the way our brain sends messages throughout the body. Carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins and minerals are all important nutrients that the brain needs to work correctly.

Neurotransmitters are molecules that deliver “messages” from one nerve cell to another. This is how different parts of the brain can communicate to influence mood, sleep patterns, and cognitive thinking. There are 5 neurotransmitters directly linked to the food that we eat; serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, histamine, and acetylcholine. These messengers are made from protein that is only found in our diet. Known as essential amino acids, these building blocks are what our body uses to make neurotransmitters.  Now this is a complex process which also includes carbohydrates, fat, and vitamins & minerals, but the main point to understand is that your mood is chemically connected to our diet.

For example, Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is associated with feelings of well-being and happiness and also helps regulates sleep and appetite. In order to create this “messenger” chemical, the body needs tryptophan, B vitamins, and folic acid.

Carbohydrates: provide glucose which is the brain’s main source of energy.

Protein: provide essential amino acids which are building blocks for the chemicals that deliver messages in our brain (neurotransmitters).

Fat: provide essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega 6), which are an important part of the nerve cell structure. These must be eaten in our diet because our body cannot make them.

Vitamins and Minerals: Assist in the production of neurotransmitters, enhance neurotransmitter activity, or protect neurotransmitters from damage. [5, 7-8,11]

Every blogger and writer has an opinion on this topic like “15 foods that make you happy” and “Top 6 foods cause depression”. Or the advice to eat kale at every meal to boost your mood makes all these recommendations sound like some “fad diet”.   In reality, the evidenced-based research supports eating a complete and balanced diet high in fruits and vegetables, essential fatty acids, low in red meat, and low in processed/sugary foods.

The Mediterranean diet is the perfect example of this dietary lifestyle and has shown positive results in research. Studies done by Sanchez-Villegas et al. 2009 & Reinks et al. 2013 both observed a lower incidence of depression with a Mediterranean-style diet (high in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, beans, nuts/seeds, and legumes). Many are saying this is due to the diet’s anti-inflammatory properties.

On the flip side, a Nurses’ Health Study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity Journal in February 2014, observed that risk for depression increased in those who ate a more “inflammatory diet pattern”, high in sugar-sweetened beverages, red meat, margarine, and refined grains.

While more studies need to be conducted to explore diet and mental health in regards to chronic inflammation, a connection between what you eat and how you feel is well established. So the next time you are stressed or feeling down and are grabbing for something to eat- try to think about the food and nutrients your brain is really craving.

Copyright: All content © 2010-2019 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.