A show of hands… how many of you eat fruits and vegetables when you are tired, stressed, anxious, or are having relationship problems? Yea, I didn’t think so. Our brains have been hardwired to do just the opposite of that. Instead of reaching for nourishing foods, we immediately jump at the opportunity to consume any and all foods that we may consider “off-limits,” to make us feel better. The type of foods commonly consumed varies from person to person, but I’d guess that chips, cookies, ice cream, or pizza may be on the top of your list.
There is a ‘science-y’ and a psychological connection between processed foods and an improved mood. For many of us, our carbohydrate-heavy diet gives rise to blood sugar imbalances. We consume a good dose of carbohydrates at each of meal and then crash! … Hence the need for snacking. Over time, this can cause a dramatic rise and fall when it comes to blood sugar, and can wreak havoc on your body. It may lead to diabetes or insulin resistance. When your blood sugar becomes dysregulated, you may experience periods of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Your body LOVES balance, so when it senses that your blood sugar levels are too low, your body has to ask you to consume more sugar to bring that level back up to the normal range. For some people, your body asks you politely. For others, your body grabs you by the collar and screams for sugar NOW!!!! If you find yourself constantly snacking or people do not like being around you when you haven’t ate in a while, chances are your body is a screamer.
We like choosing the easy route. Our bodies become dialed in to the fact that processed foods are highly palatable and are dense sources of sugar. The carbohydrate-rich foods that we tend to choose are easily broken down in our bodies to sugar, giving us an immediate energy spike and sense of arousal. Sorry to say, but broccoli is not going to make you immediately perky. We know this and have become fine-tuned to reach for the chips instead of the greens.
These processed foods are frequently consumed during social events leading to a strong emotional connection. We go out for ice cream with friends and family, have a pizza while watching a sporting event, and associate cake with special holidays. We become conditioned to remember the positive environment we consume those foods in. Thus, even eating cake at your desk at work can make you initially feel happy. Problem is, these foods are meant for special events and not every day occurrences. If you’re one of the few that consider going to work a special event, I envy you!
Sure, chocolate, ice cream, and pizza all make our brains happy initially, but how many of you still feel awesome an hour after eating that food? Your brain may have been happy for that split second, but let’s get real. Nobody has ever thought “man, I feel so good” an hour or two after Taco Bell or a pint of ice cream. Fast food chains, television ads, and clever advertising at the grocery store do a great job of promising satisfaction; however, the only satisfaction that is really taking place is in the wallets of these companies.
While pizza, ice cream, chips, and cookies trigger an emotional cue that makes us feel happy, this cue is devastating to our bodies on multiple levels. We immediately associate the consumption of these foods with pleasure and so they become our “go-to” in times of stress, lack of sleep, and during emotional periods. Ever have a bad day and resort to chocolate? Ever been rushed getting things done at home and called up Papa John? Of course we have all done these behaviors before.
Instead of letting our emotions and big businesses get the best of us, we can choose options that improve our health AND make us happy. Yes, there are such things. Here are a few safe options to turn to when you’re feeling down.
Good Mood Foods:
- Protein! We’ve all heard that turkey makes you tired (think Thanksgiving), but protein found in turkey, fish, chicken, and other animal products all contain generous amounts of tryptophan and tyrosine that increase the production of dopamine and serotonin. These are both feel good neurotransmitters.
- Fatty fish/walnuts: Omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to improve mood
- Avocados/coconut/nuts – in order to have proper hormone function, we need fat! Just make sure you’re choosing real food fats and not industrial vegetable oils or trans fats
- Dark Chocolate – now we’re talking, right? Chocolate can also boost serotonin levels, but just make sure you are getting at least 80% dark chocolate for maximum health benefit
- Sweet potato – foods rich in carbohydrates also affect serotonin levels. Starchy vegetables and fruit are more nutrient-dense choices and will leave you more satisfied than other carbohydrate sources
- Citrus fruits – oranges, grapefruit, and lemons all contain vitamin C that helps your body absorb iron. Proper iron absorption helps ensure your brain is getting the oxygen it needs. Even the smell of citrus fruits seems to help.
- Bananas – this fruit contains a good source of tryptophan
- Leafy greens – the folate in this vegetable can also help to increase serotonin
- Eggs– what don’t eggs do? Many of us are low in a nutrient called choline which can help improve our memory, concentration, and mental clarity so we know better to put down the doughnuts in times of stress
- Coffee – okay, I know this isn’t a food, but a cup or two of coffee may help boost your mood. More is not better in the case with coffee, so make sure you don’t overdo it.
The key here is to not just add these foods to your routine when you’re feel a little grouchy. We also need to remember to pull out the toxic foods. Getting enough sleep (about 8 hours), getting moderate exercise (not excessive or too little), and finding ways to help reduce your stress levels (yoga, mindfulness-based exercises, progressive relaxation, meditation) are all important. We all know about the harms of toxic relationships and try our best to stay away from negative people. Use those same principles when it comes to your diet. Cheetos and Oreos are bad friends to have. By incorporating some of these foods into your routine and paying attention to your lifestyle behaviors you will make yourself and others around you much more happy.