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8 Ways Your Diet Influences Your Mood

We all know the role of diet for physical health, but what about nutrition for good mental health? It makes sense that how we nourish our bodies also impacts our brain function and hormonal balance. Of course, we’re all bound to have those moments of impatience, irritability, and anxiety, but how many of us struggle with low energy and a low emotional or mental state on a chronic basis? Research suggests more than one in four American adults suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders in any given year. Even if our symptoms may not fit a clinical category, are we living our best life? Do we enjoy the emotional balance and resilience we'd like to have? What could our diet have to do with this answer? How could better nutritional choices make for better wellbeing each day? Check out eight ways diet can influence our mood and behavior.

The Addictive Cycle of Sugar 

Our culture treats sugar as a benign source of empty calories, but added sugar has actually been recognized as a toxin that behaves similarly to addictive drugs in the human brain. We can joke about being a sugar addict, but the hard truth is many of us actually are truly addicted. Sugar trips a pleasure trigger in the brain; however, what goes up must come down. The good hit (and mood) unfortunately don’t last. Additionally, we can develop a tolerance over time, which drives the need for a greater amount of sugar to produce the same effect. We don’t often talk about pleasure, tolerance and withdrawal when it comes to nutrition; however, their impact on mood is far reaching. Even the happiness-producing effects of chocolate have been shown to be transient. In her book Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, Catherine Shanahan warns that “[Sugar] can impair mood and memory and lead to dementia.” The empty calories are perhaps the least of sugar’s negative impact. 

Another Dark Side to Trans Fats

These ugly, dangerous fats have received their fair share of negative attention in the media lately because of their demonstrated role in heart disease. However, a recent observational study suggests a surprising potential link between trans fats and aggressive behavior. No direct line of cause and effect has been drawn yet, but more research into this relationship is definitely worth exploring. In the meantime, consider it another reason to rethink that scary hydrogenated, caramel-flavored creamer in your morning coffee. 

The Edginess of Erratic Blood Glucose 

Most of us intuitively understand that erratically fluctuating blood sugar contributes to short-temperedness. Even humorous candy bar commercials highlight this common sensation of being hungry and angry at the same time. Candy, of course, is about the worst solution for the situation. Too many starchy carbohydrates, too much sugar and inadequate dietary fiber and protein can set you up for a blood sugar roller-coaster, causing mood swings and irritability. Set yourself up instead for emotional as well as physical success: make sure to get plenty of protein, non-starchy vegetables, and unprocessed fat while limiting added sugars and processed carbohydrates. (Your co-workers, friends and family will thank you for it!) As your body becomes more adapted to burning fat for fuel, energy and mood between meals will stabilize. That means no more face-offs with the vending machine.... 

The Cognitive Effects of Additives, Preservatives and Chemicals

More and more unpronounce-able chemicals plague the standard American diet of processed foods. Some of these have been shown to contribute to changes in attention span and behavioral changes in both children and adults. Food colorings, dyes, sodium benzoate and more have been linked to the symptoms of ADHD. While research on the specifics continues to evolve, consider the positive health (and mood) impact of steering clear of these chemical additives and preservatives. 

The Harsh Ride of Emotional Relationships with Food 

Are you in the trap of having an all-or-nothing mentality towards nutrition (i.e. you’re either all in, or all out)? The problem with this approach is that, oftentimes, when we fall off track we’re too quick to engage in negative self-talk, using dramatic words such as “failure” and absolute statements such as “I’ll never lose weight.” This will undoubtedly dishearten you on your journey and set up a daily mental battle of you vs. food that manifests itself in mood swings and lower self-confidence. Instead, seek the help of a support group or nutrition coach to help you tackle your goals one habit at a time. Self-forgiveness and a happier self await you! 

Another Upside to Addressing Food Sensitivities 

Subtle, delayed reactions to certain foods may play a role in both mood alterations and addictive behavior. There’s a direct physiological connection between gut health and brain function. That means optimizing digestive health can have a significant effect on mood and energy. While the causes--and effects--of food sensitivities vary widely from person to person, it’s common to see positive mood changes when an individual begins addressing gut health. In my practice as a dietitian, a growing number of clients see marked improvements in mood and energy by eliminating gluten from their diets. Gluten might not be the only culprit, however. Dairy, corn and soy may also play a role. I recommend working with a nutrition coach to try a whole-food based elimination diet to see if this might be true for you as well. 

The Behavioral Merits of Micronutrients

Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are critical factors in brain health and behavior. It’s no surprise that fruits and vegetables are positively associated with improved brain function. Consuming plenty of non-starchy vegetables and some fruit is the foundation of a healthy diet. However, could nutritional supplements and adequate micronutrient intake potentially play a role in alleviating antisocial, aggressive, or rule-breaking behavior? It may not be as far-fetched is it initially seems: some studies are beginning to point us toward that possibility. If an imbalanced internal chemistry can cause food cravings, sleep issues and poor energy, other behavioral impacts are plausible as well. Continue to focus on adequate veggie intake and daily use of a quality multivitamin and fish oil. Be sure to be selective about any supplements you give to your children.  

The Whole Body Benefits of Unprocessed Foods

The benefits of whole, unprocessed foods are endless, and the research targeting their role in mental health is promising! Studies suggest, for example, that eating whole foods may be associated with less depression, while eating processed foods appears to be associated with more anxiety. Additives and preservatives as well as poor nutritional quality might explain why fast food intake has been linked with depressive symptoms as well. It’s important to seek medical care if you feel you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, but leverage a nourishing diet to potentially aid your emotional health. 

While food doesn’t determine our mood in a simple cause and effect way, our physical health and mental wellbeing dovetail in ways we may not fully appreciate each day. When we feed our bodies, we’re also feeding our brains and the complex hormonal systems that influence our moods and mental health. Good nutrition can prime us to be the happiest versions of ourselves by encouraging emotional balance and cognitive resilience. Consider it another reason to maintain your Healthy Way of Eating plan!

Have you experienced differences in your mood, mental wellbeing, and emotions with changes in your nutrition? Feel free to share your own experiences below! Thanks for reading.

Written by Samantha Bielawski, Registered Dietitian

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader. 

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