Ever find yourself face first in a pint of Mitchell’s ice cream after a stressful day only to end up with a stomachache + said stress 20 minutes later? While there are few flavors in this world that match my love of Mitchell’s chocolate peanut butter cup, it never actually fixes the emotion at hand. It’s more of a Band-Aid. Now, eating to cope with a specific mood isn’t always a nutrition faux pas. Sometimes it is actually a quite splendid coping strategy! It turns into a faux pas when we over utilize this as a coping mechanism and always turn to food first for coping. We need to develop new approaches to dealing with stress, sadness, anxiety, happiness, celebration, <insert emotion here>. Easier said than done, right?!
Sooooo…… what if we use food to modulate our mood? Kind of flip that food-mood association on its head. Can we keep ourselves in a good mood with food? Science says yes. Let’s check out how.
- Don’t skip meals. Our bodies get pissed when they don’t have a steady, easily accessible influx of fuel. For many, it’s the fluctuations in our blood sugar that bring on the hangries. Anybody else suffer from these hungry-angries? Steer clear of me if I miss my 10am snack! Avoid these mood-influencing blood sugar fluctuations by eating healthy carbohydrates, preferably with some protein and healthy fat, every 3-4 hours.
- Eat carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates that is. Going back to keeping our blood sugar steady, complex carbohydrates are slowly digested into sugar which leads to a prolonged release of this sugar into our blood. Simple carbohydrates (such as candy, refined white products, sugar sweetened beverages) increase our blood sugar rapidly allowing it to come crashing down. This leaves us feeling blah and hungry again way too soon. Research shows eating more complex carbohydrates along with an overall healthy diet is associated with improved mood.
- Get friendly with fish. Our brains are happier when we eat Omega-3 fatty acids, which can be found in certain fish and plants. Research shows that increased intake of Omega-3’s can decrease depressive symptoms and improve our mood. Try eating salmon, tuna, sardines, or steelhead trout twice a week. Other fish are yummy too, but do not have the mood-boosting Omega-3’s in very high amounts. Not a fish eater? You can eat the plant-based form of Omega-3 in flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, tofu, tempeh, edamame, pumpkin seeds, and canola oil.
- Focus on what is hungry. Does your body need nourishment? Or, is it your heart (loneliness or sadness)? Your brain (boredom)? If our bodies are hungry and asking for fuel, our hunger will creep up slowly, our stomachs may grumble, and we will be open to healthy foods that help us meet our health goals. After eating you will be satisfied and no longer feel hungry. If our heart or brain are hungry, cravings may hit immediately and intensely out of the blue. Think: you’re bored and tired watching TV and WHAM- in flies a pizza commercial right in your face and now all you can think about is that ooey, gooey cheesy goodness that you NEED asap. You most likely will not feel satisfied or full no matter how much or what you eat. Do you find yourself hitting up the cupboard snack after snack at night because nothing is ‘hitting the spot’? You’re probably not actually hungry.
- 80/20 Rule. Eat well 80% of the time to allow wiggle room the other 20%. There’s no bigger buzzkill than forbidden foods- for you or for your friends who have to be around you. Keep happy and motivated by allowing yourself to indulge in your favorite less healthy foods occasionally.
- Stay hydrated. Dehydration is a mood killer. It’s a guaranteed way to feel sluggish, tired, and mopey. What happens when we feel this way? We crave sweets. Our brains subconsciously think that eating simple carbohydrates will give us the energy we need to feel better and cravings ensue. Read: bonging the office candy bowl and the only thing that feels different is our new stomach ache. Keep a bottle of water near you most of the day. Drink to keep thirst at bay and urine a pale yellow. (Yes, please look at your pee!) Haven’t peed between getting out of bed and lunchtime- news flash- you’re dehydrated.
- Caffeine with caution. Habitual caffeine consumers will notice a sluggish, lethargic mood when they miss their daily caffeine dose. Over consumption of caffeine can cause restless and anxious moods. Find your balance. For most (not pregnant) adults, 1-4 cups of coffee a day is perfectly acceptable.
- Get your Vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency can cause a depressed mood in some people. Since vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin, which we can synthesize in our skin when it is exposed to the sun, many of us living in dreary climates (that’s us in O-hi-O folks) likely are not making enough. With vitamin D occurring naturally in very few foods in our food supply, many of us are not consuming enough either. Some of our foods are fortified with vitamin D, like milk, milk alternatives, and some cereals.
If you’re finding yourself in a food funk lately, hopefully some of these strategies will help.