The Food & Mood Relationship

by Jane McIntosh, MA, CNS

Let’s face it – when we have had a bad day, a common practice is to turn toward our comfort food of choice. It’s a typical response that often times stems from childhood when food was given to us to heal physical or emotional pain.

But, in our society of over consumption, poor nutritional choices and oversized portions, comfort eating can lead to excess pounds.

The relationship between food and mood is evolving, but mounting evidence indicates that dietary choices bring about changes in our brain structure, chemically and physiologically, which can alter behavior.

Nutrition experts agree that the food/mood relationship is a 2-way street; not only does food affect our mood, our mood affects the food we choose. So, it behooves us to practice a mood-management eating plan that focuses on stabilizing blood sugar through a balanced diet; i.e., eating a balance of protein, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, and limiting sugar, fat, and alcohol.

The effect Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats have on our mood

  • Carbohydrates: The connection between carbohydrates and mood stems largely from Tryptophan a nonessential amino acid within carbohydrates. As more Tryptophan enters the brain, it is converted to Serotonin – a neurotransmitter known as a mood regulator that produces a calming effect – and mood tends to improve.
  • Proteins: Protein foods contain the amino acid Tyrosine, which the brain converts to Dopamine. Dopamine has the effect of sharpening your mental processes and giving you energy.
  • Carbohydrates + Protein: If you combine protein with carbohydrates, insulin production will prevent the Tyrosine from getting to your brain first which may cause a feeling of sluggishness due to the competition between the amino acids.
  • Fats: Fat helps to stabilize insulin levels that may spike from carbohydrates. Bonus: At 9 calories per gram it is satiating, so you feel full longer!

Prevent the “go-to” comfort food response:

  • Don’t skip meals. Doing so lowers blood sugar levels which can affect your mood and behavior. Keep a stash of nuts or trail mix or something handy.
  • Eat Breakfast.

Written by Jane McIntosh, MA, CNS
Sources: Institute of Medicine, IOM, 2011 Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Policies Committee on Obesity Prevention Policies for Your Children, Leann L. Birch, Lynn Parker, and Annina Burns

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