Food and Mood

gray-haired woman eating apple with heart shape bite

Have you ever felt “hangry” (hungry + angry)? Food and mood affect one another. If you understand how they interact, you can make good diet choices and avoid emotional or impulse eating.

Maybe it’s no coincidence that food and mood have only one different letter. Think about it: On a feel-good day you enjoy a dinner salad, lean protein and vegetable for dinner. On a frustrating day, you reach for anything you can grab that’s salty or sweet, like a bag of chips or a tub of ice cream.

It’s a delicate relationship, and it can spin out of control if you’re not careful. Let’s look at the food-mood relationship, and how to set it right again when it goes wrong.

The First Craving

Even if you usually maintain a healthy diet, it’s normal to desire high-calorie, unhealthy treats when stressed or depressed. Your body wants to fuel up for fight-or-flight mode when times get tough. But it can mistake the stress of fighting traffic on the freeway for fighting predators on the savanna. It’s no wonder a whole pizza, a plate piled with fried chicken or a chocolate milkshake can seem like a cure for a downer of a day. That’s why it’s called “comfort food.” 

Vicious Cycle

A cheat meal every now and then can be OK, but if you use food to battle the blues, you’re going to lose the war. Research shows that foods full of unhealthy fats and added sugar only increase the likelihood of depression and anxiety. And that means you’ll only want more sugary junk to fight the new bad mood. This cycle is a feedback loop.

The Downward Spiral

If the consumption of “bad” fats and added sugar goes on too long, your body will adapt to it, and think it’s normal. Then, when you try to start eating right, you could throw off your system. That can increase anxiety and depression, trapping you in a cycle of bad eating to try to maintain happiness.

Breaking the Cycle

There is a way to avoid the downward spiral. In the same way that unhealthy comfort food can keep you feeling low, healthy food can boost you up. In one study, when people ate seven to eight servings of fruits or vegetables in one day, they reported feeling calmer, happier and more energetic than they usually did. They also stated they felt more positive the next day.

Things Keep Looking Up

When you’re happier, you’re more likely to crave healthy foods. It’s easier to stay healthy when you stay happy. Eating healthier helps you stay happier.

Up, Up, and Away!

The best part? There are long-term mental health effects to eating well. Research has shown that healthy choices, like the Mediterranean diet, full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, can help keep depression at bay. This type of diet helps to stabilize mood and keeps you out of the danger zone where it feels as though only a cupcake will save the day.

Good Mood Foods

There are some specific foods to keep an eye on to boost your mood:

  1. Fruits and Vegetables. An apple a day keeps the doctor away and maybe the psychiatrist, too. Fruits and vegetables have been linked to higher levels of happiness.
  2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. This is the good stuff, found in foods like fish and nut oils. Low omega-3 fatty acids have been correlated to depression and impulsivity. Getting plenty of omega-3s in your diet keeps your levels high, and that’s a good thing.
  3. Chocolate. As a special treat, chocolate may have properties that improve mood and even reduce tension. But remember, the key is to choose real chocolate (dark is best) and in moderation.

Start Now: Break the Bad Mood/Bad Food Cycle

Stock up on convenient and healthy snacks, such as bananas or snack-size bags of nuts or carrots. Keep them within easy reach at home, work and in the car. So the next time a craving or bad mood hits, you can reach for some mood-boosting goodness.

Eating well will help you be in the mood to be healthy for good!