When we’re feeling stressed or blue, many of us reach for a comforting snack. But have you ever noticed that the chips, ice cream or candy you hoped would make you feel better actually have the opposite effect?
This puzzling pattern is something I discuss often with my clients. Cravings, after all, are a common response to everyday stress. How we deal with these inner signals can make a crucial difference in our moods as well as our long-term mental health.
Food and mood are definitely linked
Experts say that when our body chemistry is balanced, our moods tend to be balanced, too. And while the occasional ice cream cone won’t hurt, our overall eating habits have a lot to do with how we feel.
In a British study of 200 people, participants were asked to cut down on known mood “stressors” such as sugar, caffeine, alcohol and chocolate while taking in more mood “supporters” such as water, vegetables, fruit and fish rich in omega-3 compounds.
An amazing 88% of all study participants experienced better mental health. More than a quarter said they had fewer mood swings, anxiety or panic attacks. Nearly 25% also experienced lower levels of depression.
It’s not only what we eat, but when
Our moods are influenced by substances known as neurotransmitters, which are responsible for carrying signals throughout the brain. Certain key neurotransmitters are governed by serotonin, which is often described as the “feel-good” chemical in our brains. Together, these substances determine whether we feel positive and energetic or tired, irritable and unfocused.
Our brains tend to work best when we fuel them with complex carbohydrates, not simple sugars. Low-glycemic choices such as whole-grain breads and crackers, apples, pears, peaches and other fruits are best.
To support a positive mental state, we need to maintain stable blood sugar levels all day long. Foods that contain too many simple sugars – common examples are commercial granola bars, graham crackers, potato chips, cakes, pies and sugary drinks — will flood our systems too fast. This causes the body to release a big shot of insulin, which tips the balance we’re trying to maintain. (If you’ve ever felt sleepy after a big plate of pancakes and syrup, you’ve experienced the “sugar crash” we’re talking about.)
Enjoying comfort food in moderation
Feeling sad, discouraged or tired often leads to food cravings. We can avoid feeding the problem by asking ourselves if we are really hungry, or just eating in response to stress. Sometimes, we can short-circuit the desire to eat by taking a quick walk, doing a few minutes of stretching, practicing meditation – or just about anything else that relaxes us.
Giving in to cravings occasionally may not be all that terrible, especially if we choose foods wisely and keep portions modest. For example, if you’re craving a cookie, choose oatmeal raisin or vanilla wafers. Substitute popcorn or pretzels for chips, and replace super-sugary drinks with flavored teas or fruit-infused water.
More tips for feeding a good mood
- Eat small meals and snacks about every 4 hours.
- Don’t skip breakfast! This early meal helps you stay balanced.
- Drink plenty of plain water.
- Exercise 20 minutes a day to help boost serotonin levels.
- Avoid an extremely low-fat diet, since healthy fats are needed to prevent depression. Choose polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats that are a good source of omega-3s. Flaxseed and fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout and salmon are great choices.
- Eat plenty of brightly colored fruits and veggies, which deliver loads of healthy nutrients.
- Limit coffee and other sources of caffeine.
Healthful living, one day at a time
As a therapist working with adults of all ages in Oak Park, Illinois, I seek to help my clients live healthy, active lives. The connection between our physical and mental well-being is a powerful one. If you or someone you love needs support in creating a more healthful lifestyle, I am ready to help. Reach out anytime to schedule a private appointment for yourself or someone you care about.