Happier Meals: How Food Affects Your Mood

It’s that time of year again. The time of year where we start to bundle up to stave off the chill of winter. This is the season for warmth and comfort. We sip our favorite hot beverages. We make plans to spend time with friends and family over the holidays. We binge on our seasonal comfort foods. People crave the taste of home, of a mother’s cooking or a grandfather’s favorite dessert. Food is more than a purely social comfort, though. There are integral biological processes at work that directly affect your psychology, emotions, and overall temperament. Before you travel to spend the holiday season with your family, there are a few vital things you should know about food and your mood.


The Dangers of Bad Nutrition

It is no secret that you need to avoid junk food. As anyone who has ever eaten an entire pizza in one sitting can attest, you rarely feel good after binging on something you love. Yet, modern society loves the convenience of this so-called nutrition. People only see the appeal in food they can pick up and eat without having to prepare or even think about. Some try to stay vigilant and incorporate a modest intake of these foods into a balanced diet. Unfortunately, too many people take advantage of junk food’s ease and speed to a point where they don’t consume healthy, nutrient rich foods at all.

Junk food contains heavy concentrations of simple carbohydrates, preservatives, excess fats, and processed sugars. When consumed too often, these foods directly contribute to rampant obesity and cardiovascular disease, two of the leading causes of death throughout the Western world. Studies have even shown that unhealthy snacks alter activity in the brain in a similar way to drugs like heroin or cocaine. Over time, the pleasure centers of the brain become desensitized. They crave junk food in higher dosages with greater frequency. Experiments on junk-consuming rats show that after reintroducing a healthy diet, the rats starved themselves for nearly two weeks.

Mood and food, especially junk food, go hand in hand for humans, as well.  Food consumption is one of the most important ways that people regulate their moods. Many often use the pejorative phrase “eating feelings” to describe those who seek solace in food when dealing with depression or trauma. Emotions such as stress affect the way that your body regulates mood. People suffering from chronic stress and depression often seek out rewarding or palatable (i.e. unhealthy) foods, directly contributing to obesity and myriad other health concerns. Conversely, these same negative emotions can decrease a person’s appetite to the point where they no longer get adequate nutrition and experience rapid weight loss.

Can Bacteria Make You Happy?

When trying to improve your mood with a better diet, avoiding unhealthy snacks and meals is not enough. You need to adopt a balanced diet that works for you. (Although, the exact definition of what constitutes a “balanced diet” has evolved over the years.) Recent research proves that an integral part of any health nutritional plan should include intake of prebiotics and probiotics, healthy bacteria aiding in digestion.

You’re probably tired of hearing about how good some of these bacteria are for your body. People tell you to drink kombucha. Television ads explain the miracles of their probiotic supplements. Even Jamie Lee Curtis tells you to eat her yogurt to improve your gut health. Is there any science to back these claims up?

The short answer is a resounding yes. Despite the recent trend of advertising the wonders of prebiotics and probiotics, bacteria have always served an integral function in the human digestive system. In fact, your gut houses around two pounds of permanent bacterial residents. Why are bacteria so important in maintaining a healthy diet and mood, though? Research shows a connection between fiber-rich foods and the prebiotic materials that feast on them. When these microbes ferment resistant carbohydrates in the colon, they release compounds called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), a metabolite integral to brain health.

SCFAs help your digestive system communicate with the brain. They signal molecules all over the body, regulating appetite, immunity, brain function, body weight, and, of course, mood. Without diets rich in fiber, and as a result deficient in SCFAs, people face some worrisome health effects. Experts have linked insufficient amounts of these short-chain fatty acids to obesity and diabetes, as well as psychological challenges such as depression and chronic anxiety.

Relatively simple changes to your diet can help increase the amount of healthy bacteria swimming in your gut. Avoid meat treated with antibiotics. These greatly diminish bacterial populations that aid in digestion. Make efforts to increase your intake of foods that release high levels of SCFAs when fermented by bacteria. These include artichokes, garlic, leeks, bananas, and onions.

Foods to Eat When You’re Feeling Blue

Scientists have found no shortage of nutrients proven to improve your mood. You can already find all of them in your body in various amounts but increasing your intake of certain vitamins, minerals, and acids offers huge benefits to your psychological and physiological well-being.

Foods such as potatoes, broccoli, whole wheat, and turkey breast are rich in a mineral known as chromium. Though found in trace amounts throughout the human body, adding more to your diet helps your body metabolize food. Chromium is also vital in the production of insulin, the hormone responsible for regulating your body’s sugar. Perhaps most importantly, this mineral increases your brain’s levels of serotonin, melatonin, and norepinephrine, all of which work to regulate mood and emotion.

Omega-3s work wonders in regulating brain activity. Intake of this essential fatty acid not only helps regulate mood and depression, it also aids in avoiding fatigue and improving memory. Since the body does not naturally produce these acids, it is important to add them to a balanced diet. Common sources of omega-3s are fish, specifically salmon and trout, and vegetarian sources such as chia seeds and spinach.

Psychologists and nutritionists alike rave about the wonders of folate and B12. Together, these two compounds aid in the creation of new cells and support healthy levels of serotonin. Folate (also known as folic acid and B9) and B12 work together to combat depression. Experts have also attributed effectiveness of anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications to these two nutrients. Foods rich in these folic acids and B12 include avocado, spinach, asparagus, and brussel sprouts.

Not only does your body need nutrients that directly affect brain chemistry, but it needs those that contribute to your overall health. Vitamin D is a versatile, effective way to maintain your entire body. Sources of this vitamin, such as eggs, milk, and mushrooms, regulates cell growth and support  your immune system. Getting enough vitamin D is especially important during the winter months when exposure to sunlight is at its lowest. Indoor lifestyles and a lack of natural light decrease your levels of vitamin D and can lead to depression. (Too little vitamin D is often the reason people seem to suffer from seasonal affective disorder.)

Remember that balanced nutrition is what keeps you happy and sane. This is always important when getting together with family during the holidays. What steps are you taking to keep your body healthy? Are there any diets you’ve tried that have worked wonders in your life? How do you plan to keep yourself healthy and happy throughout the season? Share your thoughts in the comments and have a safe, comforting winter.

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