Food to Balance Your Mood
Some moods trigger food cravings -- and vice versa. The challenge is to keep both in check.
Think of your body as an insanely complex, gooey car. Put in gas and oil (a balanced diet), and you're good
to go. Put in nicotine; alcohol; caffeine; weird, manufactured fats; gummy,
washed-out flour; and sugar, and it's like pouring sugar into the gas tank.
You'll sputter, run on, stop and start, or stall.
Put Food In, See a Difference
Senior New York University clinical nutritionist Samantha
Heller, MS, RD, would probably prefer an analogy to a chemistry set. "If
you are chemically balanced," Heller contends, "your moods will be
A lot of factors can throw the body out of balance. "A lot
of women are anemic," she says. "This leads to depression and fatigue. Older
people are often deficient in the B vitamins. People who don't eat regularly
often have big shifts in blood sugar." People also have chemical
sensitivities to certain foods that can govern mood.
In a study of 200 people done in England for the mental health group known as
Mind, participants were told to cut down on mood "stressors" they ate,
while increasing the amount of mood "supporters." Stressors included
sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and chocolate (more of that coming up). Supporters
were water, vegetables, fruit, and oil-rich fish.
Eighty-eight percent of the people who tried this reported
improved mental health. Specifically, 26% said they had fewer mood swings, 26%
had fewer panic attacks and anxiety, and
24% said they experienced less depression.
How Moods Are Fed or Starved
One big set of chemicals that control mood are the
neurotransmitters in the brain led by the pleasure "drug" serotonin.
These substances determine whether you feel good and energetic or tired,
irritable, and spacey. They run on sugar, preferably the form that comes from
low glycemic carbohydrates (not doughnut sprinkles), according to Molly
Kimball, RD, sports and lifestyle nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation
and Hospital in New Orleans.
The idea, she says, is to maintain a stable blood sugar level
through the day, slowly feeding these substances into the brain. Low glycemic
carbs include whole grain bread, beans, whole grain crackers, soy, apples,
pears, peaches, and other fruits.
What Kimball calls "crappy carbs" -- commercial granola
bars, animal crackers, graham crackers, potato chips, and of course, cakes and
pies -- flood into the system too fast and cause your body to order up a big
shot of insulin, which then tips the balance you've tried to maintain. "You
can see it when you've had a white flour pancake and syrup for breakfast,"
Kimball says. "By mid-afternoon, you're ready for a nap." This sugar
alert/insulin cycle can gradually become less efficient and lead to diabetes
and other problems.
Comfort Foods Really Work
If you have let your neurotransmitters get off balance or if
external forces have conspired to put you in a bad mood, don't fret, it
happens. That's when your body will start to think "comfort food."