Can The Foods You Eat Affect Your Mood?
It is clear that the nutrients we obtain from food enable us to function. But because it is difficult to quantify and measure people’s behavior and feelings in response to specific nutrients, researchers are not sure what effects different nutrients might have on our brains.
Carbohydrates (like bread and pasta) and proteins which contain the amino acid tryptophan (like milk and turkey) are thought to have a calming effect because they stimulate the synthesis of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is involved in a large number of body functions, including sleep, appetite, learning, hormonal secretions, and immune activity. But, experts argue, the effect these foods have is small, particularly in comparison to the potent drugs that enhance serotonin function in the brain. What science does indicate is that a carbohydrate meal in its simplest form, such as a baked potato or a piece of bread, can have a mild sedative effect on people.
The amino acid tyrosine, on the other hand, may in fact alter mood by improving cognition and performance. Tyrosine is found in protein-rich foods like eggs, beans, and nuts, as well as meat, fish, and dairy products. It is a precursor to the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (adrenaline), which affect brain cells by making you alert and getting you going.
As for why you feel drowsy after Thanksgiving dinner or other such meals, it’s because consuming a lot of calories (of any kind) has a hypnotic effect. Less blood (and therefore, less oxygen) reaches the brain as more blood flows to your stomach and intestines (to aid in digestion).
And, what about fat? Some experts think eating fat releases morphine-like chemicals called endorphins that induce a sense of euphoria. However, the extent to which any differences in behavior or cognition occur with different types of fat from your diet remains a topic of debate.
Cravings: What Do They Mean?
Food cravings, or the strong desire to eat certain foods, are both normal and common. While they vary by culture and individual, generally women tend to crave chocolate, cookies, ice cream, and other sweets, while men prefer salty or meat treats like chips, burgers, french fries, or pizza.
According to some studies, there is a physiologic (versus psychological) basis for cravings. Scientists aren’t sure why, but the fact that women report intense cravings during pre-menstruation suggests that hormones may play a role. Negative feelings, researchers also say, may be relieved by certain foods. Still others argue that having low blood sugar or a nutritional deficiency explains cravings. In addition, some researchers suggest that we are hardwired to seek calorie-dense foods as a survival mechanism (that is, our affinity for high calorie foods comes from an instinct inherited from our ancestors, who needed to store fat so that when food became scarce, they had their bodily stores to live off of).
But, as mentioned above, it is not clear that eating certain foods will improve mood. Also, thoughts and attitudes related to food are influenced not just by the urge to eat certain foods but by many other factors, such as feelings about relationships or work. And, it doesn’t follow that cravings stem from nutritional deficiencies. For example, while chocolate may be a good source of magnesium (a mineral of which many Americans do not consume the recommended daily amounts), other foods like avocados and spinach are better sources and you don’t tend to hear about people craving these foods. Moreover, some self-reported chocolate addicts feel not just pleasure, but guilt after eating chocolate. And of course, some people experience no cravings as all.
To control cravings, don’t deny yourself the foods you wish to eat. Remember, all foods eaten in moderation can fit into a healthful diet.
The Bottom Line
Foods can affect the way we feel, but many factors beyond nutrition play a role in mood. Thus, there’s no need to focus on one type of food versus another. In fact, at most meals, you probably eat a combination of carbohydrate, protein, and fat anyway. And, regardless of how one type of food can affect your mood, chances are if you eating a well-balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and exercising, you’ll feel better.