It’s pretty easy to make a connection between food and mood — we feel a little bit happier when we eat our favorite comfort foods, and eating foods we dislike isn’t a pleasant experience. But have you ever wondered whether the connection goes deeper than that momentary reaction?
As it turns out, it does. In fact, your food choices impact your mood on a physical level, supporting or suppressing your brain’s production of important chemicals. Beyond your temporary mood, you can even make a connection between food and mental health.
What’s the impact of diet on mental health? How can you use that impact in your favor? Check out more information on the impact of food on mood below.
Is There a Connection Between Food and Mood?
Even the most skeptical of the impact of food on mood must admit some truth exists. That’s the premise behind the idea of comfort foods, the culinary favorites you reach for when you need an emotional boost. These delicious bites are often loaded with salt, fat and carbohydrates, all of which trigger your brain to produce more of the chemicals that make you feel good. While people may refer to that as “emotional eating,” the reaction is decidedly physical.
Though your brain chemistry offers an immediate reward when you eat refined carbohydrates, you’ll only feel that pleasure temporarily. Over time, eating too many refined carbohydrates causes rapid peaks and valleys in your blood sugar levels. That cycling leads to low energy and irritability. Either way, the processes have an impact on how you feel.
To avoid consuming too many carbohydrates, some people start dieting. However, restrictive diets have more than just a psychological effect. Cutting out food groups, as many popular diets encourage, make it challenging to meet daily requirements for vitamins and minerals. The body requires a large number of nutrients to perform well. In particular, low levels of B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, iron and vitamin C can lead to decreased energy.
Additionally, the food you eat can affect your gut biome, the microorganisms that populate your gut and affect digestion. As the gut is where your body synthesizes 90% of its serotonin, the food you eat can have a surprisingly direct impact on your mood. If you consume food your body has issues digesting, such as red meat, you may feel worse mentally after eating particular meals.
The Correlation Between Diet and Depression
There seems to be a good case for a connection between food and mood, but what about long-term mental health?
The link between food and depression is more complicated than between food and mood. There are standards governing what is and what isn’t considered clinical depression — it’s more complex than just feeling sad or tired. While causation is still uncertain, some studies show a correlation between food and depression.
In one such study, young adults with poor diets and elevated depression symptoms agreed to eat an altered diet. The individuals reduced their intake of sugar, fatty meats and refined carbohydrates while adopting an eating plan from an accredited practicing dietician. At the end of the study and their check-in three months afterward, the participants who had adopted a healthier diet showed significantly fewer depressive symptoms.
Another study undertook a literature review and developed an antidepressant food score. The researchers chose 236 foods to put on the list based on clinical evidence that showed the particular foods played a role in depressive disorders. Based on that evidence, they found that 12 critical nutrients are related to preventing or treating depression:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
The correlation between food and mental health seems indisputable. The remaining questions regard causation. Does a poor diet increase or create risk factors for depression? Does depression lead to a poor diet and the nutritional deficits that researchers have found? Do the dual issues of diet and depression influence each other in a feedback loop where both will worsen without intervention?
These questions currently remain unanswered. However, you can still use the connection between mental health and food to your advantage. By improving your eating habits based on what research has found so far, you may be able to work toward improving your mental health.
Foods That Support Positive Mental Health
What are some foods that boost your mood?
In general, following a Mediterranean diet can help decrease symptoms of depression. At its core, a Mediterranean diet is about eating more fruits and vegetables, legumes, omega-3-rich fish and olive oil. While you can do so easily enough on a regular day, it might seem like a lot to handle when you’re feeling low. The good news is that you can find plenty of food for positive mental health to incorporate into your diet individually.
Now that you know which nutrients are most beneficial, you can determine the best foods to beat your low mood.
Foods With B6 and Tryptophan
If you’re feeling depressed or anxious or having trouble with memory or focus, you might be running low on some vital mood-boosting chemicals.
The body needs vitamin B6 to produce serotonin and dopamine. B6 is an essential nutrient — a nutrient your body can’t make on its own and has to obtain through your diet. Luckily, several foods are high in B6, such as:
On top of the B6 required to start the process, your body needs another essential component for serotonin production — tryptophan. Though turkey is a well-known source of tryptophan, you can also introduce it to your diet through spinach, salmon, seeds and nuts.
Try a crisp spinach salad topped with avocado, sunflower seeds and flaky salmon for a lunch that will rev up your mood.
Foods With Folate
Many people are familiar with folic acid, the synthetic form of folate, as a recommended supplement during pregnancy. Another B-vitamin, B9 or folate, can also help deter depression.
Like all of the B vitamins, folate is an essential nutrient. It’s naturally found in:
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Fresh fruit and fruit juices
- Sunflower seeds
Foods With Cacao
Foods to Avoid When You’re Feeling Down
The impact of your diet on your mental health goes both ways. Just as there are foods that can boost your mood, there are foods that will keep it low. To complicate the issue, some of those foods provide brief relief in the moment — though their long-term effects can leave you further down than where you started.
As tempting as it may be to go for a quick fix or temporary comfort, it’s best to avoid these options:
- Refined sugars: Sugary food and drinks like soda, pasta and baked goods provide a temporary mood and energy boost. Unfortunately, that boost is always paired with a crash afterward when your blood sugar levels plummet as quickly as they rose. Avoid processed foods, as they frequently contain added sugar. Keep an eye on ingredient lists and avoid items made with high-fructose corn syrup.
- Refined grains: Grains consist of three main parts — the fibrous shell, the starchy middle and the nutrient-rich center. Refined grains like white bread or bagels only use the starchy middle. Without the fiber and nutrients to balance the carbohydrates, refined grains will give you the same spike and crash that refined sugars offer.
- Fruit juice: Much like refined grains, the trouble with fruit juice stems from the lack of fiber. When you eat whole fruit, the fiber is what’s filling. It also slows down how quickly your body can absorb the energy it provides, as it has to break down the fiber first. With juice, all that remains are the nutrients and the sugar. While the nutrients are still valuable, the fruit’s sugar will also have the same spike-and-crash effect as refined sugar.
- Gluten: Reducing your gluten intake may significantly reduce the severity of depressive symptoms like low moods. This is especially true for those with a gluten sensitivity or intolerance but also impacts people without those issues.
- Alcohol: At best, alcohol has a temporary positive effect on your mood. In the long-term, it can disrupt the balance of your neurotransmitters. That disrupted balance can threaten your body’s ability to create serotonin and dopamine. Over time, alcohol’s negative impact on your mood only grows stronger.
Tips for Finding a Healthy Balance
Letting go of unhealthy eating habits and making better food choices for your mental health is a process that can take some time. Remember that you can make any changes you want at your own speed and take your time to find what works best for you. Here are some tips to help get you started:
1. Eat Regularly and Mindfully
Once you learn to listen to your body, you’ll find it’s surprisingly good at letting you know what it wants and when. If you find yourself crashing or getting irritable in between regular meals, try replacing a larger lunch with something smaller and adding several healthy snacks along the way.
Practicing mindful eating will help you better understand what your body is asking for at the moment. Are you craving donuts? Take a moment to ask yourself what makes them appealing and consider whether there’s a healthier alternative that would still satisfy you.
2. Choose “Slow-Release” Carbohydrates
Of the three macronutrients — carbohydrates, proteins and fats — carbohydrates are your body’s preferred energy source.
In complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, oats, whole-grain foods and nuts, the chemical structure is more complex and the fiber content is higher. This complexity and fiber make it take longer for your body to break them down. With that process spread out over time, you get a gradual release of energy rather than a spike and crash.
3. Stay Hydrated and Manage Caffeine
A healthy water intake should be between 11.5 and 15.5 cups per day. If you’re seeing visions of yourself constantly knocking back glass after glass of water, take heart — about 20% of that should come from your food. Most liquids you consume also count toward your total. Between a morning coffee, water throughout the day and a drink after dinner, you’re likely getting enough water.
Remember that while sugary and caffeinated beverages count towards your daily total, you should still try to limit your intake of them.
4. Eat a Balanced Diet
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the general daily guidelines for adults are:
- 1.5-2 cups of fruit
- 2.5-4 cups of vegetables
- 6-10 ounces of grains, half of which should be whole grains
- 5-7 ounces of protein
- 3 cups of dairy products
Choosing American Dining Creations
If eating to boost your mood still seems like a lot to handle on your own, American Dining Creations can take that burden off your plate. We’re a family-owned and -operated company that’s passionate about great food and exceptional service. We use only fresh, high-quality ingredients for our chef-inspired menus that offer a variety of delicious, healthy options. We’re also committed to providing authentic cuisine diversity to accommodate a wide variety of diets, allergies and sensitivities.
Whether you’re looking for something new in your workplace cafe, an upgrade to your school menu or catering for a special event, American Dining Creations has a variety of options to suit your needs. We’ll help you create a personalized program to fit your vision and your needs. We value our relationships with our customers and are ready to develop a long-term partnership with you.
Contact American Dining Creations Today
The impact of food on your mood is complex. If you’re ready to see how a healthy diet can lead to better mental health for you, your employees or your students, we can help. Let our culinary experts provide a spread of mouth-watering and nutritious food to help you work toward creating a better diet. You can rest assured that we’re there to take care of it all.
Are you ready to let American Dining Creations help you develop your dining program? Fill out our online contact form to schedule a consultation and free tasting and discover what we have to offer.