Stress and emotional eating. We’ve all done it. Having a crappy day, or week, and all we want to do is eat. Whether it’s pizza, mac and cheese, and a bag of chips or ice cream, cookies and candy bars, we turn to comfort foods to get us through. From an emotional perspective, maybe we associate these foods with happier, relaxing times. From a physiological standpoint, stress causes the release of cortisol which drives your body to eat sugary, salty or fatty foods. And these foods do offer some relief, soothing or suppressing unpleasant feelings. But it’s only temporary, and when the pizza is gone and there are only cookie crumbs left, what follows is often more stress, anxiety and exhaustion as our blood sugar levels plummet and our body deals with the overload of fat, sugar and salt.
I talk and write a lot about eating healthy. I do this because research shows that nutrition is an important aspect of everything from weight management and feeling energetic to disease prevention and longevity. I want people to know that what goes into our mouths every day has a tremendous impact on our everyday lives and the long-term health of our bodies. But the impact is not just on our bodies. It’s on our minds, too! Increasingly, research is showing the impact of foods on our mood.
But why and how does the food we eat affect our mind and our mood?
We all know that our mood can cause stomach problems. Certain situations can make us feel nauseous or give us the feeling of butterflies in our stomach. This is because our gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotions. Anger, fear, stress, and sadness – all these feelings (and others) can cause symptoms in the gut. But the gut-brain connection goes both ways. Just as a distressed brain sends signals to our gut, a distressed gut sends signals to our brain. And what you eat can either cause your gut to be happy or distressed.
Living in our gastrointestinal tract are billions of bacteria, commonly known as our gut microbiome. These bacteria play an integral role in our health. They protect the lining of our intestines from ‘bad’ bacteria and toxins, control how well we absorb nutrients from food, limit inflammation, and they activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps mediate mood, happiness and anxiety, as well as regulate sleep and appetite and inhibit pain. And 95% of our serotonin is produced in our gastrointestinal tract. So, it makes sense that the inner workings of our digestive system don’t just help us digest food, but also guide our emotions. When we eat ‘comfort’ foods high in sugar and fat or heavily processed, we might actually be harming our gut microbiome, causing inflammation, and perpetuating a bad mood and feelings of stress or anxiety. And when we eat healthy foods, full of fiber and nutrients, our gut microbiome thrives, helping to improve our mood.
Start paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel — both in the moment and the next day. Instead of reaching for typical comfort foods the next time you are having a rough day, try eating some fruit or vegetables, foods that are full of fiber and important vitamins and minerals.
Here are some easy substitutions for typical comfort foods:
Instead of ice cream, try unsweetened plain yogurt with frozen berries and a few dark chocolate chips.
Instead of chips, snack on roasted chickpeas, a few nuts, or crunchy cucumbers or jicama.
Craving chocolate? Skip the milk chocolate and grab a square from a 75% cacao dark chocolate bar.
Instead of packaged and processed cookies, try my Loaded Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies or these Apple Oatmeal Cookies.
Instead of macaroni and cheese, try my rich and creamy Scalloped Sweet Potatoes & Spinach in Cauliflower Sauce for a mood-boosting meal.
Skip the greasy pizza and try a Portobello mushroom pizza. Top a prepared Portobello mushroom with a few slices of tomato and/or your favorite marinara sauce and some chopped vegetables (onions, peppers, zucchini). Sprinkle with some garlic powder and Italian seasonings and bake for 15-20 minutes.
The eight foods below have all been shown to help ease stress, improve mood, relieve anxiety or help fight depression. Try cutting out processed foods and foods high in fat and sugar for a few days or weeks and choose from this list instead. See what a difference they can make, both physically and emotionally, for you.
Click below to download a PDF and keep this guide as a reference.
With these suggestions, you can feel empowered in your efforts to boost your mood, naturally. There are so many things you can do to improve your brain health and boost your mood, and the reality is that when you focus on food, you also experience all of the other health benefits that come with eating whole, real foods!
I know it’s difficult to start or even maintain a well-balanced diet. I encourage you to adjust your diet by thinking of ways you can moderate negative foods and increase others that promote physical and mental well-being that fit your lifestyle. If you want support getting you where you want to be with your health and diet, contact me.
While good nutrition is an important component of your emotional well-being, it is not a substitute for proper medical care and treatment. If you have concerns about your mental health, talk to your health care provider.