Food & Mood

Did you ever notice that you’re in a foul mood if you haven’t eaten all day? Or did worse things that happened to you look less dramatic when you got your favourite meal afterwards? Well, that’s just two of the things how food and your eating habits can influence your mood.

 


Food can influence your brain on two levels: by having an impact on your psyche or by influencing the brain chemistry (but which is only possible in very small quantities). Both have an impact on your mood.

 

First, let us have a look on the impact of food on our psyche. Many of us are not only eating if we are hungry, but also when we are sad, bored, happy, stressed, want to relax or want to reward ourselves, as well as when we are in good company with friends. We try to regulate our emotions and feelings with food in order to reach an emotional and mental balance. Everyone has his/her certain foods that help him/her to stabilize, preserve or even enhance pleasant emotions as well as foods that help to improve the mood. Those foods vary from person to person, although there are some foods that are associated with good mood by a lot of people, like chocolate for example. Every person learns his own food-mood-system through sensorial or social experiences and chooses in a particular mood or situation certain foods or dishes for mental regulation, because he/she already has experienced that foods as suitable comforter or pleasure enhancer. Those emotional experiences and connections with food are part of a normal and healthy eating pattern. And although everyone knows the interactions between mood and food, respectively food and psyche, to this day, many questions remain unanswered by science.

 

However, there are several things we already DO know about the relation between food and our emotions, for example from social & behavioural sciences. The eating patterns of humans are closely linked to sociocultural and individual food-related symbols and communication processes: simply put, our cultural environment, represented by our parents, friends, colleagues etc., teaches us our eating patterns and what we associate with certain foods. If we don’t follow the common regional or western eating habits, we call it an “alternative diet” which arises from a different attitude towards food. You can read more about that in our category “Food & Attitude”. There are four categories into which the psychological effects of foods can be divided:

  • Security: Foods and dishes are eaten in order to reach emotional balance and to fight anxiety
  • Lust: Foods are eaten for their taste, smell or look in order to increase lust and good feelings
  • Prestige / Status: Foods are eaten to emphasize the social status in a group (oysters or truffles for example)
  • Cultural Identity / Cultural Affiliation: Foods have the function of social identification, which means that the people who eat certain foods show their conformity and solidarity with a group which eats those foods and of which the eater want to be a part of or want to show the affiliation with that group. This category also applies to religions and their dietary rules.

 

It is important to know, that if food remains your only source to regulate mood and to lift emotional imbalances, you should ask for professional help in order to change your food attitude and the links between food and your emotions, because otherwise it could easily lead to weight problems and could also lead or be a sign of a depression. Lifting your mood with food can only be part of an overall treatment plan to increase your mental well-being.

 

Well, after examining the impact of food on our psyche, we will now review the impact of food, respectively food ingredients on our brain chemistry by influencing the brain functions. The influence of some substances coming from the food we eat on our brain functions has been known for a long time. The question is how these substances influence the brain. The answer is: By influencing the production of messenger substances in the brain, the so-called neurotransmitters, which control the brain cells (neurons). In order to produce such neurotransmitters such as serotonin, epinephrine etc., the body / the brain needs the precursors, which are early stages of these messenger substances and which are produced by using certain amino acids that are supplied through the food we eat. The most important neurotransmitter to control mood is serotonin. The rule of thumb here is: the more serotonin is produced the better is our mood. The starting substance for the serotonin synthesis in the brain is the amino acid L-tryptophan, which is often found as building block of the proteins in our food. A way to enhance the uptake and concentration of L-tryptophan and thus increase the serotonin production in the brain could be this: the more carbohydrates you eat, the more L-tryptophane reaches the brain, because the other amino acids are bound by insulin, the body’s central hormone for regulating the carbohydrate and fat metabolism, and the tryptophan is the only amino acid that is transported to the brain (Link 1, Link 2).  Another way of increasing the level of tryptophan is the consumption of foods that are rich in fats, because free fatty acids in the blood stream promote the release of this amino acid. That is why most people feel comforted after a meal that is rich in fat and carbohydrates (unless an irrational guilty conscience may kicks in that would have the opposite effect). That also explains why chocolate is considered by many people a “good mood food”. It is full of carbohydrates (sugars) and fats (cocoa butter). However, some scientists doubt that you can boost your mood or increase the serotonin production by eating carbohydrates in abundance.

But it should be noted that there are scientists also, who doubt the connection between good mood and carbohydrate intake, saying that you would have to wait several hours between eating proteins and carbohydrates in order to experience this kind of effect and, additionally, which would only be very little. As for chocolate, these scientists think that the mood-boosting properties of chocolate rather result from the taste and emotional links to pleasant experiences than from its chemical composition.

 

Finally, it has to be said that food can influence the mood to some extent, but not as much as you might hope and maybe not in the way you thought. But consider this to be a good thing, because imagine a world where only eating a certain food would (quickly) lead straight into depression or the other way around. Such mood swings over a long-term would be devastating to the psychological health of anyone, as it can be seen with many long-term drug addicts. So, what CAN those mood foods do for you? They can help to maintain your mental balance, which leads to a stable and good mood. Not more, not less.

 

Click here if you want to get some tips to help keeping your mood balanced with the proper nutrition.

 

Further helpful links:

http://www.ifbb.org.uk/

http://www.mind.org.uk/help/medical_and_alternative_care/food_and_mood-the_mind_guide

http://www.webmd.com/depression/features/foods-feel-better

http://articles.latimes.com/2010/nov/08/health/la-he-food-and-mood-20101108

 


This article was prepared by Erik Voigt of the Department of Food Biotechnology and Food Process Engineering, Berlin Institute of Technology (Technische Universitaet Berlin), Berlin, Germany and of the European Federation of Food Science and Technology (EFFoST), Wageningen, The Netherlands.

For further questions please refer to: erik.voigt@tu-berlin.de


 

Videos / Documentaries

     

                  "BBC Explorations: Mood Food (Part 1)"                                             "BBC Explorations: Mood Food (Part 2)"

 

                "BBC Explorations: Mood Food (Part 3)"

 

Tips for your health

    

           "A Little Bit Better: 4 Foods That Reduce Stress"                                                "CBS: Good Mood Food"