Mar-Apr 2011: Essay: The Mood Food Connection

by Mayura Mohta

“annam vai prānah” - All life force comes from food.

Besides air and water, we need a regular intake of food for our existence. Food is the fuel from which our body generates energy for our mental and physical activities.

Ancient texts suggest, that how one thinks and feels is directly influenced by the food one eats. What used to puzzle me however, was that though I always ate well, I did not always feel well! Often after a meal, I’d end up lethargic, irritable, or sleepy instead of alert and energised.

Over a period of time and study, I realised that eating spicy, oily, overcooked or fatty meals made me unwell and brought out the worst in me. I realised that coffee made me reactive and chocolate made me happy, at least for a while, until I reached out for the next piece! I began observing and analysing the eating habits of those around me with a view to unearthing the food-mood connection.

I would like to share with you what I learned; it may be a ray of hope to those of you who are labelled “moody”!

During the course of the day if you are often feeling anxious, fatigued, angry or depressed, you’re not alone. Our moods seem to be deteriorating rapidly and an increasing number of people are turning to medication or stimulants for solace. The onset of a ‘Coffee Culture’ has aggravated matters even further. Is there a way out of this malady? A healthier option to coffee or Prozac? 

To arrive at this answer, let us first understand the biochemistry of energy and emotions.

 

 

The food we eat undergoes a series of chemical reactions in the presence of other nutrients (vitamins and minerals) to generate energy.

Optimal quality and quantity of food ensures sustained energy levels which induce ‘good moods’. Sub-optimal nutrient intake results in low energy levels which induce ‘bad moods’.

Certain foods are energy generators or good mood foods, while some foods are energy stealers or bad mood foods (See Table 1). Complex carbohydrates and proteins provide sustained energy and maintain the blood glucose balance.

 

 

Stimulants such as coffee, tea and alcohol put the body under stress and encourage the release of glucose from various reserves in the body, providing short term energy but long term fatigue.

Like  stimulating food, stressful emotions too, stress the body by releasing adrenaline, and deplete energy reserves causing general fatigue.

Thus, good mood foods energise us on consumption and bad mood foods deplete our energy on consumption - i.e., our diet influences our emotional states! A self proclaimed ‘Food Victim’ like me can certainly vouch for that!

So how can diet affect how you feel?

Certain foods alter one’s mood by influencing the level of certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters and endorphins. These chemicals are involved in brain and nervous system functions and are made up of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Table 2 shows how levels of these brain chemicals affect moods.

 

 

There is a connection between our intake, and the optimum levels of these brain chemicals.

Apart from study, I learned from personal trial, that eating a variety of whole foods that include fresh fruits and vegetables; whole grains containing complex carbohydrates; proteins and essential fats like omega-3 found in nuts, seed and fish ensure optimal physical and mental balance. Nutrient deficiencies in the diet can be corrected by intake of supplements.

Table 3 lists some key nutrients that influence neurochemical levels, as well as common foods that provide these nutrients.

 

 

Of course, there are a lot of other factors that help sustain energy and positivity:
1. Don't eat too little or go on fad diets. Unbalanced calorie intake results in reduced energy and mood swings.
2. Avoid large, high-fat meals, eat complex carbohydrates and protein instead.
3. Have at least one iron-rich food per day as iron helps transport oxygen to your tissues and sustain energy levels.
4. Do not skip breakfast. Make an effort to eat frequent and smaller meals, to keep your blood sugar balanced, and maintain your energy level.
5. On a regular basis, it is best to have simple meals and avoid overly spicy food.
6. Break destructive addictions to food, drink or other stimulants. Strive for discipline and routine.
7. Combat stress with yoga or meditation or a hobby.
8. Eat local, seasonal and organic food.
9. Reduce exposure to environmental toxins.
10. Exercise everyday!

The conclusion we arrive at, is that one ‘easy’ way you can change how you think and how you feel, is by consciously observing what food goes in your mouth. You can thus take responsibility for your ‘moods’ and choose to be in a happy frame of mind by eating correctly. As the saying rightly goes - you are what you eat!

Mayura is a microbiologist, and nutrition and fitness consultant based in SIngapore. she runs a social enterprise - Healthfriend which conducts wellness seminars and workshops; the profits benefit charities for malnourished children.

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