by Kristen Rezabek, MS, RD, CD; Master Gardener Class of 2013
For centuries we have known that what we eat often affects how we feel. Now we have some scientific evidence to back up what we have intuitively felt to be true. There are certain components in food that influence our moods and in turn our behaviors as well as level of physical and mental energy. However, there are many different factors besides chemistry in your brain that affect your mood.
Food is not only eaten to sustain us, but also to provide pleasure. We normally eat foods we enjoy and avoid the ones we don’t. The pleasurable aspects of eating are controlled by various situations and experiences. How hungry you feel affects what and how much you eat. Both positive and negative experiences with food will alter your intake. Remember the entrée that gave you food poisoning; if you’re like me, you’ve probably avoided it like the plague ever since. Lastly, the sensory properties of the food — how it smells, tastes, and feels in your mouth — will stimulate you to choose whether to eat it or not.
At least 60% of us report experiencing food cravings or an urge to eat a particular food. Men typically report food cravings as being driven by feelings of hunger. Women on the other hand have a much more emotional tie to foods. They state that their food cravings are more likely to be affected by negative moods, stress and boredom. And often times when the craved food is eaten feelings of guilt and remorse follow, particularly if that food is considered an indulgence, say chocolate.
So why do we crave these foods? Well research has shown that food impacts our mood in two ways. First, when we experience a negative mood such as depression we are more likely to turn to foods such as chocolate and sweets for relief. Second, certain foods such as sugar, caffeine and certain eating habits such as skipping meals may actually have a negative impact on our mood. The foods we choose to eat affect the production and activity of nerve chemicals known as neurotransmitters in the brain. These chemicals regulate our emotions, hunger, moods and behaviors. Serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and acetylcholine are made from nutrients in the foods we eat. The level and activity of these neurotransmitters may depend on our food intake.
Protein and carbohydrates stimulate amino acid production in the brain used to form neurotransmitters. Carbohydrates raise blood glucose levels causing a release of insulin. Insulin increases the amount of tryptophan (an amino acid) that enters your brain. Tryptophan is an ingredient in the making of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that controls mood, sleep and appetite. Eating complex carbohydrate foods such as fruit, whole grains and beans are believed to increase serotonin levels and help produce a calm and relaxed mental state. A meal high in protein; chicken, fish, lean meat products and low fat dairy may increase the amino acid tyrosine, a precursor to the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine and epinphrine. It has been suggested that increased production of these neurotransmitters may enhance mental alertness and concentration.
Caffeine is another substance that is commonly believed to have a stimulant effect. Studies indicate that caffeine found in coffee, tea, colas and chocolate may enhance mental alertness and improve mood. However people’s reaction to caffeine can vary and drinking excessive amounts may cause irritability and fatigue. Try to limit coffee to no more than 3 cups per day. If you are sensitive to the effects of caffeine you may want to decrease and/or eliminate caffeine altogether and see how it makes you feel. The negative effects regular coffee drinkers feel when they are deprived of caffeine such as headache, fatigue and depression are believed to be symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. A gradual decrease in your caffeine consumption should make these symptoms disappear in about two weeks.
Food behaviors such as skipping a meal may result in mood swings and fatigue. To combat these negative effects on mood try and eat regular meals. If you are not a breakfast eater try something light instead, include a carbohydrate and a protein such as milk, cereal or toast and fruit. For lunch keep it simple, a sandwich or bean soup and fruit. Try to snack on nutritious foods and avoid overdoing it on the sweets. Eating high sugar foods or simple carbohydrates like candy may give you a temporary boost in serotonin levels, but that high is followed by a crash and may cause you to cycle through highs and lows resulting in overeating and weight gain. Instead choose nutritious sweets such as fruits, yogurts, whole wheat breads with jam to satisfy your sweet cravings. Include carbohydrates at meals such as brown rice, pasta, whole wheat couscous, potatoes or sweet potatoes. For an evening treat try air popped popcorn or a scoop of sorbet.
Exercise helps you feel good both mentally and physically. Try to increase your daily activity to get at least ½ hour a day. Regular physical activity releases epinephrine, norepinephrine, and other brain chemicals that increase your alertness and sense of physical well being.
Nutrition deficiencies particularly in the B vitamins – Thiamin, B6, B12 and folic acid – are linked to impaired mental ability and mood. Food sources rich in the B vitamins include chicken, legumes, fish, bananas, leafy green vegetables and fortified grains and cereals. Consider taking a general one a day multivitamin with minerals to ensure your bases are covered. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world. Having iron deficiency anemia results in feelings of fatigue, apathy and depression. A blood test at your doctor’s office will diagnose if you have anemia. High iron foods to include in your diet are meat, fish, poultry, beans and legumes and iron fortified breads and cereals. You should only take iron supplements on your doctor’s recommendation.
Remember food choices are influenced by a variety of factors and mood is just one them. Be aware of emotional triggers that cause you to crave certain foods. Try not to eat out of boredom, frustration, loneliness or stress. At the same time including small amounts of the foods that give you pleasure is important as long as you don’t overconsume and then feel guilty about it. When the winter doldrums set in with the colder weather and shorter days make sure to balance your mood with enough sleep, exercise and nutritious foods to help you feel good emotionally as well as physically.
Try this simple recipe to use up Thanksgiving leftovers. Serve with a whole grain bread.
(Just click the link for a printable copy.)