Correlations Between Food and Moods
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 foods and the how food affects your mood connection varies from person to person, here is how food affects your mood:
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.
NUTRITIP: Buzz Foods
Some foods, such as those containing caffeine , give the brain a buzz. This may be a welcome lift when the brain needs to be turned on, such as to study or to keep awake. Other times caffeine can be a detriment, such as when you want to turn off the brain and go to sleep, or when you need to stay relaxed under pressure.
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.”
NUTRITIP: Sweet Pleasures
Sweet lovers take note! Chocolate may be more nutritious than imagined. Depending on the type, chocolate can be a good source of iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and flavonoids. By a fortunate biochemical quirk, cocoa butter – the fat that gives chocolate that appealing melt-in-your-mouth feel – is metabolized like a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Chocolate as a mood elevator even merits a bit of scientific support. Possibly the caffeine or phenylethylamine compounds stimulate serotonin and endorphins, both calming and satisfying the chocolate craver. Enjoy!
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 mood foods detective for their child. Follow these steps to figure out your child’s unique fingerprints for mood foods 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.
How food affects your mood will vary from person to person. Try to figure out your personal mood foods connection-which foods perk you up and which ones let you down. Being able to determine how food affects your mood will help you make wise food choices.
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. As a father of 8 children, he coached Little League sports for 20 years, and together with his wife Martha has written more than 40 best-selling books and countless articles on nutrition, parenting, and healthy aging. He serves as a health consultant for magazines, TV, radio and other media, and his AskDrSears.com website is one of the most popular health and parenting sites. Dr. Sears has appeared on over 100 television programs, including 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, Today, The View, and Dr. Phil, and was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.