Both research and experience are proving without a doubt that there is a connection between how we eat and how we think and act. The biochemical basis of this food-mood relationship lies in the neurotransmitters, those chemical messengers which relay thoughts and actions along the trillions of neural pathways in the brain. It seems logical that since food affects neurotransmitter action and changes in neurotransmitters are responsible for changes in moods, that food does affect mood. It also seems that food affects some people’s moods more than others. Some children – we call them “vulnerable kids” — are exquisitely sensitive to junk foods in their diets, while others seem to breeze through fast-food joints without any mood change. While it’s easy to spot these vulnerable kids, I wonder how much “normal” behavior we attribute to “just being a kid” is really the result of poor nutrition. While the nature of the food-mood connection varies from person to person, here are the usual effects of various foods.
Carbs that calm. Complex carbohydrates and foods that have a low glycemic index (legumes, unrefined grains, and fruits) are likely to have a relaxing effect because they cause fewer blood sugar disturbances, with less release of stress hormones.
Carbs that rev. Sugars, such as those found in frostings and soft drinks, tend to cause more fluctuations in moods that run parallel with fluctuations in blood sugar. First, there’s a high, then a low, and eventually the person becomes irritable as the mood fluctuations parallel the ups and downs of blood sugar. Junk sugars cause fewer mood fluctuations when eaten along with a fat or fiber that slows down their absorption into the bloodstream.
Happy foods. Some feel that chocolate is calming because it triggers the release of endorphins . Other happy foods, such as milk, chicken, bananas, and leafy green vegetables may produce pleasant feelings because they stimulate the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Tryptophan-containing foods (See Foods for Sleep) also have a relaxing effect, so they could be called “happy foods.”
Sad foods. Some people feel sad after a high-fat or sugar meal. Each person has unique food- mood connections, but if you pay attention, after a while you will begin to eat more of the foods that make you happy and skip the foods that bring you down.
Parents need to become the food-mood detective for their child. Follow these steps to figure out your child’s unique fingerprints for food-mood connection:
- Make a daily chart to record what your child eats and when he eats it. Fill in one of these forms every day for a week.
- Record when behavior problems, bad moods, or irritability occur.
- After a week, examine the charts and look for connections. Then decide what improvements you can make in your child’s diet to improve his moods.
- Continue keeping food-mood records to help you decide whether dietary changes have improved the behaviors.
Mood foods vary from person to person. Try to figure out your personal food-mood connection-which foods perk you up and which ones let you down. Being able to determine how foods affect your moods will help you make wise food choices.