What You Eat Could Be Affecting Your Mood
By Kurtis Bright
Avoiding Sugar Crashes Is Only Half The Battle--Food Strategies That Can Boost Your Mood
At some point or another, everyone has experienced “stress eating,” that is to say, eating from a place of emotional need. Crying into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a breakup is a common rom-com trope for good reason.
But the fact is, grabbing a candy bar or other sweet snack when we feel stressed is actually natural on some level, and even based on biological imperatives. The simple truth is that foods like these make us feel good because our ancient wiring has built-in rewards for us for taking in (formerly) desperately needed fats and sugars.
However, that taste of sugar and sense of well-being comes with a price: the inevitable sugar crash. Following the elation of the sugar high comes the morass of low energy, crankiness and even depression--an ugly vicious circle that leads many to seek a quick fix for their low mood in the form of another candy bar, then another and another. So little wonder that people in many developed countries are so depressed, obese and suffering from diabetes.
Lucky for us, there are foods that are better at giving us better moods--moods that last--along with higher energy. Over the long term, foods like these will keep you in a better, more productive mood.
- Caffeine - Much is made of the notion of coffee addiction, both teasing and periodic alarm. However, the energy and buzz of elation you get following your morning cup of joe is not a joke: a study at Harvard in 2011 showed that women who drank at least two daily cups of coffee showed a 15 percent lower chance of depression than their coffee-deprived counterparts. And depression risk decreased by 20 percent for those who consumed four cups a day. Because caffeine triggers the release of dopamine, it helps you focus and improves outlook. In moderation, virtually all modern studies show that coffee is a fairly benign drug of choice. Just be aware that if you drink coffee too late in the day it can and will affect your sleep, and if you are a coffee-drinker who experiences anxiety--a very real possible result according to studies--you should probably cut back a bit.
- Fat - We crave fat at a biological, animal level, simple as that. Back when our ancestors were still scavenging on the savannah while trying to avoid lions and other predators, to find a food source containing a lot of fat was something like striking biological gold. The reward centers in our brains are hardwired to release dopamine and other feel-good chemicals when we absorb fat for this reason. Fat slows digestion and our bodies can store it for later use, so when you and your body don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you tend to crave it. What's more, your body is designed to hang onto every molecule you take in, banking that valuable fat for later. It is perhaps because of this physical need that the body has for fat that we experience a calming sense of satisfaction when we eat it. When studies examine people with mood disorders, they find that eating two seafood meals per week high in omega-3 fatty acids is strongly correlated to lower rates of depression. Researchers think this is because these fats help maintain brain function in regions responsible for mood and emotion.
- Afternoon Carbs - Despite what you’ve been told by your trendy, gluten-free neighbor, carbohydrates are not the devil. The fact of the matter is carbs are vital to our energy levels and brain function. If you are one of the many people who experience a dreaded late afternoon decline in mood and energy, it might well be due to the fact that your brain is running low on serotonin. Have a small serving of carbohydrates, say 25 to 30 grams or so, for instance, three-quarters of a cup of Cheerios or other unsweetened cereal. Even that small amount can give you a surprising boost without a huge caloric cost or a massive sugar crash after.