You are what you eat, right? Well, maybe not, but you do feel what you eat. Research suggests that certain foods affect mood—for better or worse. Dietary changes can trigger chemical and physiological changes within the brain that alter our behavior and emotions. Most folks understand the link between what they eat and overall physical health but what about the link between what you eat and your mood, your energy, how you sleep, and how well you think? What you eat (or don’t eat) for breakfast will have a subtle effect by mid-afternoon, and what you’re eating all day will have a huge impact in the immediate and down the road.
Here’s a closer look at how your diet could be affecting your mood:
1. You don’t eat regularly. Food is fuel; skip a meal and you’ll feel tired and cranky. “It’s like trying to run a car without gas,” says registered dietitian Keri Gans, author of The Small Change Diet. When you go too long without eating, your blood sugar sinks and mood swings ensue. Breakfast is particularly important—especially for children: Studies show it helps kids perform better and get into less trouble at school. Eating breakfast regularly makes both kids and adults less prone to cravings and more likely to maintain a healthy weight. But remember: All morning meals aren’t equal. Adults: breakfast is more than a quick cup of joe and a bagel! Strive to have protein at every breakfast meal as well as slow-releasing carbs such as a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal. Breakfast cereal, bagels, toast, fruit juices, etc., are poor breakfast choices in terms of sustaining energy and satiation. Remember – PROTEIN!
2. You skimp on carbs. Carbohydrates have long been demonized, but your body needs carbs to produce serotonin—a feel-good brain chemical that elevates mood, suppresses appetite, and has a calming effect. Research suggests that low-carb dieters are more likely to feel tired, angry, depressed, and tense than those who get the recommended amount. However, some carbs outshine others. Only complex carbs—high in fiber and unprocessed—have a positive effect on mood, whereas simple carbs (think candy, cake, cookies, bagels, cereal, doughnuts, bread, etc.) ultimately bring you down. Simple carbs release a ton of sugar into the bloodstream in a very short amount of time which triggers the pancreas to release insulin to normalize blood sugar levels. This cycle causes a huge crash which not only triggers food cravings but also leads to poor mood, low concentration, low energy, headaches, etc. Opt for whole grain food choices such as brown rice, quinoa or buckwheat. Also try legumes and beans and don’t forget that most vegetables and fruits technically fall into the “carb” category, as well. Eat plenty of fresh, raw (preferably organic) fruits and veggies and if you need a little pick-me-up, try banana or cantaloupe!
3. You fall short on omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s—found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines—improve both memory and mood. Research suggests that low omega-3 levels are associated with depression, pessimism, and impulsiveness. Indeed, depression rates are typically lowest in countries like Japan, where oily fish is a diet staple. Most experts recommend at least two servings of fatty fish per week; other sources include ground flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts and omega-3-fortified eggs. You can even obtain omega-3 by consuming grass-finished beef instead of conventional corn-fed beef. Also, it is very important to avoid all trans fat products as typically found in margarines, baked goods and all fast food. Trans fat actually throws off the body’s ability to effectively absorb good fats, as well as other nutrients.
4. You neglect important nutrients. Getting too little iron can spell depression, fatigue, and inattention, research suggests. Iron-rich foods include red meat, egg yolks, beans, liver, and artichokes. Scientists have also found that insufficient thiamine can cause “introversion, inactivity, fatigue, decreased self-confidence, and a poorer mood,” according to a recent report published in the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. Thiamine abounds in whole grains, pork, yeast, cauliflower, and eggs. Consume thiamine to increase overall well-being, sociability, and energy. Equally important, studies also show that folic acid (vitamin B9) also known as folate, helps fend off depression. Green veggies, oranges, grapefruit, nuts, sprouts, and whole grains are all viable B9 sources.
5. You eat too much BAD fat. That bag of potato chips isn’t good for your waistline or your mood. Greasy choices—particularly those high in saturated trans fats—are linked to both depression and dementia. What’s more, a large, high-fat meal will almost instantly make you feel sluggish. It takes a lot of work for our bodies to digest fat, particularly fats that the body is not able to effectively break down and assimilate.
6. You chug without thinking. What you drink affects your spirits as much as what you eat. In moderate amounts, caffeine can enhance physical and mental performance, but too much can spur anxiety, nervousness, and mood swings. Stick to one or two cups daily to dodge the negative effects. Instead of coffee, try green tea—an antioxidant powerhouse—which has also been known to help fight depression. It contains theanine, an amino acid that combats stress. Also, be cognizant of your alcohol consumption. Most folks are highly aware that alcohol can have an immediate effect on mood when consumed, producing feelings of relaxation and amenability. When consumed at high levels, alcohol can also cause feelings of sadness, anger and irritability. What many folks don’t consider, however, is that once the initial affects of alcohol wear off, it still impacts mood. Regular consumption impacts brain activity, energy and also causes depression. Drinker beware!
All in all, to avoid mood swings, food cravings, irritability, lethargy and mind fog, adopt an anti-inflammatory diet and not only will you feel the results, but you will see them, too!