Mac and cheese. Chocolate chip cookies. A bite of Ben and Jerry’s. Some call it “comfort food”; others say it’s “food as friend.” However you phrase it, turning to food to soothe the soul has been a short-term defense for coping with unwelcome feelings for decades. And now science is verifying that the food you choose does indeed influence mood.
Food and Mood
That what you eat can affect your mind and emotions was first discovered by Richard Wurtman, MD and Judith Wurtman, PhD, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1970s, when they found that the sugar and starch in carbohydrate foods boosted a powerful brain chemical called serotonin. Soon they linked serotonin and other neurotransmitters (substances that pass information from cell to cell in the brain) to your every mood, emotion, or craving.
For instance, they noted that eating a carbohydrate-rich food, such as pasta or potato chips, elevated serotonin levels, helping you to feel more relaxed and calm; high –protein foods, such as fish or poultry, have the opposite effect: they release substances that let you think and react more quickly and feel more alert and energetic—without the stimulation of caffeine, found in coffee, tea, and many sodas.
From cookies and cake to ice cream, comfort foods are often high in sugar. This means they may provide some short-term comfort by releasing soothing serotonin, but you won’t get long-term relief; rather, sugar-laden comfort food could worsen negative feelings because its high- sugar content can send your blood-sugar levels plummeting, leaving you even more depressed and fatigued then prior to eating them.
Here are some health-filled “blues busting” foods that can help diminish depression—minus the “downer” side effects:
- Whole grains
- Dark green, leafy vegetables
- Orange fruits and vegetables
In other words, fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and fish.
A quick tip: Consider chili for a delicious and nourishing bean-based meal, or multigrain bread or cereal as whole grain options.
Optimizing your diet by consuming blues-busting foods as often as possible is a sound, scientific step toward defeating unpleasant emotions. In other words, if you consume fresh whole foods in their natural state, you’ll be turning to food that nourishes you with feel-good feelings more often than not.
Deborah Kesten, MPH, was the nutritionist on Dean Ornish, MD’s first clinical trial for reversing heart disease through lifestyle changes—without drugs or surgery, and Director of Nutrition on similar research in cardiovascular clinics in Europe. She is the award-winning author of Feeding the Body, Nourishing the Soul, The Healing Secrets of Food, and The Enlightened Diet. Call her at 415.810.7874, or visit her at www.Enlightened-Diet.com to take her FREE What’s Your Eating Style? Quiz, and to learn more about her Whole Person Nutrition Program for wellness, weight loss, heart-health, coaching, and books.