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Nutrition Notes: Food and Mood—What’s the Connection?

Karen Lentner, MA, RD, LDNKaren Lentner, MA, RD, LDNWhen you’re feeling stressed, or after having a bad day, do you ever find yourself mindlessly eating chips out of the bag, ice cream from the container, or a very large piece of chocolate? You may have experienced this kind of stress eating, but do you think there’s a connection between your food and your mood? You may reach for foods that you think will provide comfort, but do they actually make you feel better or worse?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have had feelings of isolation and anxiety. We’ve been concerned about our physical health, but our mental and emotional health are equally as important. Studies have shown that the foods we eat may positively affect our mood and impact the way we feel, similar to how we feel after exercise and socializing with friends or family. Eating the right foods may also increase our energy levels, improve the quality of our sleep, and help us think more clearly.

A Mediterranean-style diet may help lower your risk of depression and protect your mental health. It is a well-balanced diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, olive oil, and lean protein, and discourages red meat, processed foods, and unhealthy fats. Instead of focusing on subtracting items from your diet, try adding an extra fruit or vegetable or some of these healthier items every day.

How do we manage our mood with food?

1. Eat regularly. When your blood sugar drops, you may feel irritable, tired, or depressed. Eating regularly will keep your blood sugars stable. Avoid skipping meals including breakfast, and try eating smaller portions throughout the day. Whole grain bread with peanut butter, an egg or cheese, nuts, or low fat yogurt with berries, are good places to start. Eating well-balanced meals or snacks such as these helps keep your blood sugars stable throughout the day, and your brain functioning at its best.

2. Avoid food containing primarily sugar that will make your blood sugar rise and fall quickly, also known as a “sugar crash.” Avoid items such as soda, juice, donuts, pastries, or candy.

3. Get sufficient protein. Protein contains amino acids that play an important role in the production of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters may help improve your mood and decrease anxiety and depression. Aim for at least 45 grams or 6 or more ounces of lean protein each day such as poultry, fish, tofu, and legumes (beans and lentils). A serving of chicken the size of your fist is approximately 3 ounces. Limit your intake of red meat.

4. Take care of your gut microbiome. Research has shown the link between gut health and mental health. An unhealthy gut may be associated with anxiety and depression. The gut microbiome contains trillions of micro-organisms living in the GI tract that play a critical role in our health. Foods containing prebiotics and probiotics feed and support your gut microbiome. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and legumes (prebiotics), and fermented foods such as yogurt, kombucha, kefir, and kimchi (probiotics). For healthy digestion, you need plenty of fiber, fluid, and regular exercise.

5. Increase intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and healthy fats. These are found in fish, walnuts, almonds, flaxseed, chia seeds, olive oil, sunflower oil, and avocados, and help fight off feelings of depression.

6. Have your vitamin D levels checked. Low levels of vitamin D or nutrients including iron, zinc, folate, and magnesium may be associated with depression and mood disorders. Sources of vitamin D and these nutrients are from foods such as fatty fish including salmon, leafy greens, egg yolks, and fortified foods, as well as sunshine.

7. Maintain adequate hydration. Drink a minimum of 6–8 cups of fluid daily, limiting caffeine and alcohol. Being adequately hydrated may help your concentration, mood, and cognition.

8. Avoid processed foods. Chronic inflammation may result from a diet containing large amounts of processed foods, causing depression and anxiety. Adding green leafy vegetables, high fiber, and fermented foods, teas, and herbs and spices including turmeric, curry, ginger, and garlic may all help fight inflammation.

By better understanding how food and mood interact and affect one another, it will assist you in making improved food choices and hopefully limit emotional eating. Be mindful of when, what, and how much you are eating. By incorporating a healthy balance and a variety of nutrient-rich foods into your life, you will feel better physically and mentally.