Although there has been a plethora of research regarding food and its effect on mood, it is still a controversial topic. However, almost all experts agree that food definitely affects the way you feel — they just don’t concur on the process.
“No one doubts that food ingestion can influence mood and behavior, but the mechanisms by which this happens are not fully understood,” says Simon N. Young, Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University.” Perhaps the most dramatic effect [of food on mood] is in an infant. The transformation of an infant from crying and irritability to postprandial contentment and responsiveness that delights its parents can be dramatic. If a drug had a similar effect, it would be considered powerful.”
If you’re suffering from a bad day at work, screaming kids, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a fight with family or friends, or even if you’re on vacation and you want to just “chill out,” a small dose of carbs might do the trick.
Two renowned scientists, Richard Wurtman, M.D. and Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were the first to connect food with mood when they found that carbohydrate foods boosted a potent brain substance called serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that controls mood, sleep and appetite, and, when elevated, helps you to feel more relaxed and calm.
Here’s how it works: The glucose in high carbohydrate food triggers the release of insulin. This in turn allows the amino acid tryptophan to reach the brain (by blocking other competing amino acids), stimulating the production of serotonin.
The problem is, when someone is feeling down, he/she tends to go for foods that are not only high in carbohydrates, but are also high in processed sugar and fat. “When people are feeling gloomy, they attempt to self-medicate with food,” says Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D., author of Food & Mood (Henry Holt, 1999). “They go to carbohydrates to feel better; unfortunately, they go to the wrong foods for the right reasons.”
So what should you eat when you need an emotional boost? Experts advise NOT eating foods like candy or soda to get your dose of carbs because you could end up feeling fatigued and unsatisfied. “You could get the same boost and crawl out of the hole with whole grains, air-popped popcorn, a whole-wheat bagel, potatoes, winter squash, or corn,” says Dr. Judith Wurtman. These foods foster those same feelings of relaxation and tranquility, without the ensuing “sugar crash.”
Keep in mind that you have to give the “serotonin effect” time to work — your mood should begin to change noticeably in about 45 minutes. Also, ingesting any protein within four hours of the carb dose will disarm the mood shift completely.
And what about the mood of those that are on the Atkins Diet? “A diet that lacks carbohydrates is definitely going to make a person crankier,” adds Dr. Wurtman.
When the going gets tough and you need a boost of energy, the food that can do the trick is a nice dose of protein. So if you have a big meeting, a job interview, or an exam, Dr. Wurtman suggests you eat protein alone as a meal or snack. Protein raises the level of the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine, which produce the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which act like mental adrenaline. This leads to increased alertness — letting let you think and react more quickly, or feel more energetic.
So if you’re scheduled for an afternoon of lengthy meetings, skip the pasta primavera for lunch — experts recommend eating high protein foods such as nonfat dairy products (e.g., cottage cheese, yogurt or milk), beans, egg whites, peas, nuts and soy products (e.g., tofu or soymilk), skinless chicken, fish or lean beef.
And what about fat? Some experts argue that eating fat releases morphine-like chemicals called endorphins which induce a euphoric or calming response similar to that experienced after intense exercise or a good laugh. In fact, experts who disagree with the “serotonin effect” argue that the real comforting power resides not in the carbohydrates themselves, but in the endorphin release that is triggered by their robust proportions of sugar and fat.
Additionally, foods that are high in fat take longer to digest, which draws blood away from the brain, leaving you with lack of focus, mental lethargy, and drowsiness.
So if you need to stay sharp, steer toward lean protein sources, and avoid the fat.
Throughout countless interviews with experts, they all agree on one strategy for keeping your mood in tip-top form — eat breakfast! “Not eating breakfast basically puts your entire day in jeopardy — it’s like running your car without oil and gas — using the drudge at the bottom of the gas tank,” cautions Somer.
To get fueled up for your day, experts recommend having a “power breakfast” before you go, meaning a few ounces of protein to keep you sharp and “good quality” carbohydrates (i.e., low-fat cereal — not a doughnut) to keep you calm and satisfy your hunger.
And I don’t know about you, but a good cup of coffee doesn’t hurt my mood, either.