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Food, mood, and a healthy attitude: How to feel good from what you eat

A little girl eating a strawberry.

It’s Monday morning and you have 20 minutes to pack the kids’ lunches. Decisions, decisions. What to give them?

There’s always the fast and easy route. You know—prepackaged, processed stuff that you can easily throw in their lunch bags without much prep work needed.

It’s an option, but you know that fast and easy doesn’t always mean healthy or nutritious. And you also know that putting the extra effort into packing your kids’ lunches with whole foods will impact their mental and emotional health in a positive way. 

In this busy, fast-paced world where junk food is so convenient and easily accessible, children need guidance when it comes to proper nutrition for optimal brain health. One way you can help them is by helping them become more aware of how food impacts their mood.

The Food-Mood Connection, Explained

When we decide to eat something, we often do so because we’re experiencing a hunger sensation. But not always.

Sometimes, we eat because we’re feeling something—bored, anxious, frustrated, sad, or some other emotion. Whatever it is, it’s uncomfortable, and we think we can help ourselves feel better by turning to food. 

Food also has the power to change our mood once we’ve eaten it. So if we’re in a bad mood to start—anxious, for example—we may eat something and find that afterward, we feel completely different—perhaps regretful, irritable, or tired.

But it isn’t just our current emotional state (or our thoughts) that influence how we’re going to feel next. Emotions, in fact, are also influenced by biochemical activity within the brain, which is exactly where food comes in. Food is what supplies the nutrients that fuel this biochemical activity.

This is how our brains are able to send important messages throughout our bodies so it can function properly—including mood regulation. When the food we eat doesn’t provide us with the necessary nutrients, our brains have trouble receiving the correct messages. This unfortunately can lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.

How to Help Your Mood Through Food: A Few Tips

Ready to start improving your mood and attitude with the power of food? Here are a few starting points. 

Reduce the Amount of Sugar You Consume

Sugar is everywhere. The average American in 1820 consumed just 20 pounds of white sugar a year. Compare that to the 21st century where the average American in 2012 consumed 130 pound a sugar a year! These days, you can find it added to most processed foods like crackers, bread, soups, cereals, and commercial salad dressings.

Sugar impacts our mood by creating an overactive, excited brain state. This is why when you eat something sugary, you feel extra pumped up.

Glucose is the sugar that circulates in our blood stream and is the body’s preferred form of energy, so when we eat something sugary, it causes a rapid rise in blood sugar and the body goes into overdrive to get the energy it needs. The only problem with this is that when we crash from all the sugar, we feel down and lethargic.

Excessive consumption of refined sugar also depletes the body of vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium and B vitamins. These nutrients are responsible for maintaining a healthy mood by helping to regulate emotions such as depression and anxiety. 

So the next time you reach for a candy bar or cookie, you might want to reconsider. Instead, opt for an apple or a banana to keep your blood sugar stable.

Quick Tip: Aim for around no more than 10 teaspoons of sugar per day—keeping in mind that four grams equals about one teaspoon. Check the items you purchase for the grams of sugar and choose foods with little or no added sugar. This includes beverages. Soft drinks are responsible for most of the added sugar in the American diet, with one can of soda containing about 11 teaspoons of sugar. 

Go for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables 

Fresh vegetables have a life force. In fact, the Latin word for vegetables, vegetare, means “to enliven.” Vegetables give us life by energizing us, and they’re the richest source of antioxidants.

Research shows antioxidants may help decrease the risk of developing depression and reduce depressive symptoms in people who already have it. For those who aren’t familiar, antioxidants are basically molecules that protect our bodies from the damaging effects of free radicals. Free radicals occur naturally as a result of all kinds of processes in our bodies, but are also present in environmental pollutants we’re exposed to on an everyday basis.

Eating a diet rich in fruits and veggies is a great way to boost your antioxidant intake. Certain antioxidants may also be especially beneficial when it comes to mood.

Look for foods high in vitamins E, C, and beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant and free radical scavenger that contributes the orange color of many fruits and vegetables. Sources include brightly-colored vegetables such as carrots, apricots, cantaloupe, mangoes, papayas, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes.

Quick tip: If you’re looking for a way to feed yourself and your children healthy antioxidants—a sweet potato with a pat of real butter or homemade, oven-baked sweet potato fries can fit the bill, and most children like the taste of sweet potatoes!

Relax Before You Eat

Many of us eat when we’re late for work, when we’ve got five minutes between scheduled tasks, when we’re stressed, or when we’re sitting on the couch just trying to unwind from the day. Our minds may be running a million miles per hour and as a consequence of this, our nervous systems may be in sympathetic mode—an active mode also referred to as the “fight-or-flight” response. In this mode, digestive processes are shut down.

The parasympathetic mode, also referred to as “rest and digest,” is the mode we need to be in when preparing to eat. In order to properly digest food and assimilate nutrients, we need to feel relaxed. The more relaxed our minds and bodies are, the better chance we have of absorbing nutrients that will nourish our cells, and really enjoy our food. 

And the better our digestive processes are, the better we can feel. We also decrease the chances that we’ll eat something that will have an adverse reaction on our minds or bodies.

Quick tip: Eat sitting down, chew your food thoroughly, turn off your electronic devices and turn on positive talk and/or soothing music. Meals are meant to be enjoyed, so create an environment that promotes comfort and positivity.

Read Labels Carefully  

Preservatives, food coloring, artificial flavors, and other additives can all contribute to mood fluctuations. This is why it’s so important to read food labels carefully, and opt for foods with minimal ingredients.

You may need to spend a little extra time educating yourself about food ingredients and reading their labels at the grocery store, but it’s well worth it in the end. Ideally, you want to choose foods that are as close to their natural form as possible. 

This isn’t possible for every food item, but you can at least try getting as close as you possibly can. For instance, when choosing bread, look for the word “whole” before flour to take advantage of whole grains for energy without the processed white flour that quickly turns into sugar in our system. Stay away from artificial colors and flavorings.

Quick tip: Grab a food item from your refrigerator or pantry and do some research on any unknown ingredients. This may seem daunting at first, however, once you learn which brands you can trust, you can shop for them in the future quickly, and know you’re making a healthy choice for your family. Keep in mind that if you can’t pronounce any of the ingredients, it may not be something you want to ingest.

Reduce Processed Foods  

Limiting consumption of processed foods goes hand in hand with eating less sugar, eating more fruits and veggies, and reading labels carefully. The methods involved in processing food basically destroy valuable nutrients while increasing sugar, salt, and chemicals that can cause mood swings. If you want to think clearly, have enough mental energy to concentrate on tasks, and feel emotionally balanced overall, you may want to start asking yourself how you can swap processed foods for whole foods.

If it’s in a bag or box, it’s probably been processed. Think cookies, crackers, chips, and packaged sweetened baked goods. And yes, fast foods are also processed. Whole foods are foods that have been minimally altered, as if they came straight from the Earth—think vegetables, fruits, wild-caught fish, nuts, seeds, spices, and olive oil.

Quick tip: An after-school snack of hummus on celery, or nut butter on an organic apple or banana can provide steady energy throughout the day thanks to the B vitamins, protein, omega-3 fatty acids they contain—in addition to a long list of other nutrients. Did you know that a low intake of B vitamins can negatively impact mood? Many important enzymes required for the synthesis of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, are dependent on vitamin B6. Bananas are a great source of vitamin B6 in addition to being low in fat and high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Food Can Help You Feel Better

Making dietary improvements isn’t easy. It takes learning, practice, patience, and persistence to change both eating and food shopping habits. You may even need a little extra help from someone. But if you can make it a habit, you may find that it pays off in the long run.

Remember that food does more than just give us energy and taste good. It’s intricately connected with our emotional states, too.

Eat well to feel good- and feel good so you can eat well! 

*Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding your unique nutritional needs before undertaking a new diet or health care regimen.

About the author

Kathleen Zamperini, MA, MEd, LPC, CIMHP, is a licensed professional counselor and has 30 years of experience as a psychotherapist. She holds master’s degrees in counseling psychology and in education, as well as a degree in nutrition from the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition. She is also certified as an integrative mental health provider. Her book, “Food, Mood, and More: How Food Affects Mood and What You Can Do About It,” was published in 2021. She has spoken at many conferences and webinars, providing education on the benefits of nutrition and improving mental health. She is also a speaker for PESI, Inc.

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