Nutrition-wise blog

The food and mood connection

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. May 23, 2009

Meditation and positive imagery are tools to reduce stress. Let's try some food imagery: Picture a plate with bright green spinach topped with caramel-colored crunchy nuts, moist chunks of lean poultry, and bright orange and red dried fruit. Alongside this beautiful salad, you have a golden brown whole-grain roll and a cool refreshing glass of milk. Top this off with a bit of dark chocolate for dessert. Have I lulled you into a peaceful state of mind?

Can what you eat affect your mood? Can your diet be part of the equation to reduce stress? Possibly. Take a moment to think about what you eat and how it makes you feel.

Omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, tryptophan, folate and other B vitamins, low glycemic foods, and chocolate have all been studied to assess their impact on mood. The results are mixed but seem to show an association — though not a direct link — between these foods and improved mood.

Of course, these nutrients and foods are part of a healthy diet. And when you eat a healthy diet, your body reaps the benefits. For example, when you eat fruits, starchy vegetables and whole grains throughout the day you keep your body fueled and your blood sugar level on an even keel. And you're getting vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. Combining carbohydrates and proteins enhances the availability of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter said to have a calming effect and to play a role in sleep.

In addition, simply knowing you are taking care of yourself can boost your mood. And we're all familiar with the power of comfort foods. For example, drinking a glass of milk before bedtime can trigger a comforting memory of your childhood.

Now, think of the foods and behaviors you associate with a stressed-out lifestyle. Do you see someone who is sleep-deprived, gulping down caffeine and shoveling in fast food while on the run? Can you also picture the vicious circle at work here? Stress leads to sleeping less, which leads to reaching for caffeine and sugar for a fix, which is followed by a crash and need for another fix. Add to that skipping regular meals and exercise and maybe using alcohol to unwind. Alcohol and lack of exercise contribute to poor sleep. And so the cycle continues. We know that this way of eating doesn't make us feel good physically or mentally.

Anyone been there and found a way to break out of this cycle? What are your thoughts and observations on food and mood?

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May. 23, 2009