We’ve all heard of comfort foods — foods that we have an emotional connection with that make us feel exuberant during a celebration or better after a break up. Though comfort foods create a certain nostalgia, there are less obvious ways that food can influence mood. If you’ve been noticing that you’ve been feeling down, lethargic, or feeling indecisive and forgetful, it may be the grocery store, and not the doctor’s office, that you need. Four dietary culprits responsible for poor mood include blood sugar imbalances, inadequate B vitamins, lack of amino acids, and insufficient essential fats.
Poor blood sugar regulation is associated with fatigue, poor concentration, depression, crying spells, and insomnia. With 37% of Americans struggling with prediabetes, blood sugar imbalances are common due to the massive quantity of refined carbohydrates in the American diet. The breakdown of sugar in the body requires B vitamins that most sugar-enriched foods do not contain. Even drinks that most would consider healthy contain a ton of sugar. For example, a Jamba Juice mango smoothie contains 16 teaspoons of sugar. That’s the same as 6 Krispy Kreme donuts! Most people who drink their sugar consume it in the form of soda. One study reported that people who drank greater than four cans of soda per day were 30% more likely to develop depression than those who didn’t drink soda. Conversely, those drinking four or more cups of coffee without sugar per day were 10% less likely to develop depression than those who didn’t drink coffee.
You can start normalizing your blood sugar today, and start feeling better tomorrow, by eating whole foods. This includes food that is processed as little as possible, and that are low in sugar and high in fiber. Focus on eating regular meals that contain protein and healthy fat, and exercising to build and preserve muscle and reduce fat!
B vitamin levels can also be a key determinant in your daily mood. People with vitamin B deficiencies are more likely to suffer from depression, vague fears, emotional instability, decreased ability to cope with stressors, and confusion. To make sure you’re getting plenty of B vitamins, look for dark leafy greens, legumes, seeds, nuts, meat, fish, poultry, and eggs. Understanding how amino acids influence mood helps explain why B vitamins are so important.
Amino acids, (building blocks of protein), are needed to form neurotransmitters (chemicals that relay information between nerve cells) that impact mood. Two “feel good” neurotransmitters are serotonin, which mainly influences mood, and dopamine, which mainly influences motivation. To produce these two neurotransmitters, the amino acids betaine, tryptophan, and phenylalanine must be present. Betaine triggers production of SAM-e (S-adenoslmethionine), a chemical directly related to the production of dopamine and serotonin, as well as, melatonin (promotes normal sleep patterns), and Co-Q-10, (vital for energy metabolism). Tryptophan is converted to serotonin in the presence of B vitamins, vitamin C, and zinc. These same vitamins and minerals are needed to convert amino acids, phenylalanine, and tyrosine to dopamine.
Because of the crucial role that amino acids (the building blocks of protein) play in mood regulation, low protein diets are associated with increased rates of depression. This is particularly true because of the scarcity of naturally occurring tryptophan, even in protein rich foods. So, where can we find these amino acids in addition to the vitamins and minerals needed to convert them? Meat, especially lean, grass-fed red meat, is a great source of tryptophan, B vitamins and zinc. You can find a ton of vitamin C in leafy greens and broccoli. Eggs, liver, and peanuts are especially rich in choline that can be converted to betaine. In fact, just two eggs can provide over half of the recommended daily intake of choline for adults. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, high quality dark chocolate is a great option. Actually, dark chocolate, legumes, nuts and seeds can help ward off depression and anxiety because they contain magnesium, a key mineral in serotonin production. Cocoa polyphenols are also known to enhance positive mood states.
EPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids that help protect against psychiatric disorders, influence serotonin levels, and have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. DHA accounts for 40% of the fatty acids in the human brain. Unfortunately, the standard western diet is rich in omega-6, which is pro-inflammatory. The high levels of omega-6 in the American diet are due to most livestock being fed corn, cottonseed oil, soy, safflower, and sunflower oils, which are each high in omega-6. You know what they say: “You are what you eat.”
It’s not surprising that women who consume a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 had a lower risk of depressive symptoms and increased positive mood states. Fish, especially anchovy, herring, mackerel and salmon, are very high in omega-3 fatty acids. Many vegetarians choose plant sources of omega-3 like flaxseed, pumpkin seeds and walnuts. However, these plant-based sources must be consumed in quantities nine times greater than animal based sources because they are not as bioavailable.
The crux of this whole article boils down to four pieces of sound nutrition advice.
- Minimize/avoid sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.
- Consume an adequate amount of lean protein.
- Choose foods rich in B vitamins (B 6, folate, B 12), choline and magnesium.
- Enjoy fatty fish two to three times per week or an equivalent amount from plant sources like flax or chia seeds.
Use these guidelines for your everyday nutrition choices, and you’ll likely be feeling happier and more energized in no time.