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 balanced."
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.