How Food Can Affect Our Mood

We can all relate to reaching for sweet or salty at some point in our lives when we were extremely stressed, anxious, or upset. In this article we will dive into why our craving develop and healthy tips to stay on track when our mood may vary. Yes, food can affect our mood!

Note: While we cannot say for sure what foods will make you happy and what foods will trigger negative emotions, we will discuss the strong research and links we do know. The good news is that research continues to pile up and I am excited about what is on the horizon!

So what strong evidence is out there on foods that keep us healthy and happy?

There is consistent evidence for a Mediterranean-style dietary pattern and lower risk of depression. A Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, and lean protein such as chicken and fish, and low in red meat and unhealthy fats. (1)

There is also strong evidence that link a diet rich in Vitamin D with lower rates of depression, especially in women. A 2010 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who ate more vitamin D–rich foods (400 IU or more) had a lower risk of depression than women who got less vitamin D in their diets. (2)

Micronutrients play a big role in our mood because they are the instructions for our cells, neurotransmitters, and metabolism. What are other important nutrients we should make sure we are getting enough of?

  • Vitamin D foods – egg yolks, fatty fish like salmon or tuna, beef liver

  • 21 Essential Vitamins & Minerals – plenty of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds

  • Amino Acids – animal protein, beans, grains, nuts, seeds

  • Omega 3 – fatty fish like salmon or tuna, plant sources are poorly converted (nuts and seeds)

I do recommend my clients take a multivitamin or prenatal if you are or are planning to be pregnant. I also often recommend an omega-3, vitamin D, and magnesium supplement for common deficiency and inflammation. This is especially important if you are already taking an antidepressant or antianxiety medication. These medications are known to deplete key nutrients in the body and require a daily multivitamin to prevent deficiencies. An all-around great once daily multivitamin is Pure One

What about caffeine? Can that affect my mood or anxiety?

Caffeine is a stimulant, which means that the effects it has on your body is similar to that of a “fight or flight” response. This is good news for those groggy morning people, but if you are sensitive to caffeine or dealing with anxiety it can be a nightmare. Even as little as one cup of coffee, or a type of coffee/brew can leave you feeling nervous, moody, and can keep you up all night.

On the other end, if you are fatigued or groggy a cup of coffee can be the perfect perk to wake you up and boost your mood. If you are sensitive to caffeine/anxiety, but love the morning cup there are plenty of alternatives out there like Dandy Blend or Teecino.

Why do I seem to go towards sweets, sugar, or high carb when I am stressed out or anxious?

When we are upset and craving sugar / high carb, what we are really looking for is comfort. Sugar is a quick boost of serotonin in the brain, our feel-good neurotransmitter. It makes sense our bodies learn that quick and we end up resorting to sugar as our outlet. We feel good and relaxed and full and sleepy, at least for a couple of hours until the signal shuts off. Then we crave more carbohydrate.

I encourage my clients to be mindful of their own experience with food. When you are stressed, angry, mad, sad – what types of food do you reach for? How do you feel after?

What can we do to maintain healthy habits when we are feeling upset or emotional?

Have an outlet for when you are upset. What will help you get your mind off things and let you release any anger, sadness, frustration?

  • Walk outdoors or other activity in fresh air

  • Talk with a friend/family member

  • Journal your feelings

  • Write a letter to someone (you don’t have to send it)

  • Remove yourself from the day and take a nap or find a quiet place to read

Did you know light exposure increases serotonin in humans? This is why serotonin levels are lowest in midwinter, and higher on bright days no matter what time of year. Light therapy and serotonin-increasing medications are both effective treatments for depression that occurs with low levels of sunlight.

Other recommendations for staying away from the sugary, sweet cravings

How about how you feel when you look at a pretty plate of color and variety?

Think a Panera salad with a side soup or sandwich. Now think about how you feel when you have a large bowl of buttered noodles. I think we can all agree both of these meals are tasty, but which one invites positive feel-good emotions and also makes you feel energized and happy after eating?

Aim to have different flavors and textures for your meals to not only fill you up but also satisfy you.

Crunchy, Cold, Warm, Sweet, Salty, Savory, Soft

The salad has crunchy, cold, sweet, and salty. The sandwich has warm, soft, savory.

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I do want to also mention a word of caution on a low-carb and/or ketogenic diets.

Severely restricting carbohydrates to less than 50 grams per day can have a major effect on women’s hormones and the thyroid. Consumption of low carb diets has also been linked with depression. This does not mean that you can’t cut out breads/pasta/chips/crackers/cookies/etc.

You can get all the carbohydrates you need in a day from high fiber, whole foods: vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes

Stay healthy and happy!

Liz, RD


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