How do you shake off the blues and shift your mindset to a happier place? It’s easy to fall back on food, for example a chocolate bar, for an instant ‘feel good’ feeling.
So does this mean that food can change how we’re feeling, and even function as a mood booster? And if so, how long does the effect last? Expert WW nutritionist Ray reveals all.
The complex food-mood connection
The relationship between mood and food has become a hot topic, with more and more experts now recognising that certain foods can play a crucial role in elevating our mood.
However, it’s important to remember that the food-mood connection is extremely complex, and there are huge gaps in research relating to how food can influence how we feel.
Nevertheless, while concrete answers are lacking, there is some evidence that points to a link between food and mood. We’ll start with the question on everyone’s lips…
Does eating chocolate make you happy?
Chocolate lovers, rejoice – science confirms that chocolate can influence our happiness! Eating chocolate releases several neurotransmitters, so-called ‘bliss-chemicals’ that have a positive effect on our feelings.
These include phenylethylamine (which causes alertness and a degree of excitement), serotonin (a well-known general mood lifter) and endorphins (known to decrease levels of both stress and pain). Furthermore, there is scientific evidence to suggest that chocolate can improve mood and cognition1.
However, next time you’re feeling a bit down or have a chocolate craving, try to eat mindfully. Choose a square or two of dark chocolate that contains 70% or more cocoa, rather than milk or white chocolate2.
A higher percentage of cocoa equates to a higher content of flavanols (naturally occurring compounds present in many foods), which can have a positive effect on our mood.3,4,5
Understanding mood and blood sugar
Do you ever experience an overwhelming craving for chocolate, or something sweet? Craving something sugary isn’t uncommon, especially when you’re feeling tired or sad.
Whether you’re experiencing a dip in your blood sugar levels from skipping breakfast or you’re having a bad day, sugary foods provide a temporary blood sugar spike, which boosts your mood.
However, it’s important to point out that this increase in mood is short-lived – sugar is a ‘quick fix’ that won’t have a lasting effect.
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When indulging in a bar of chocolate, for example, the sugar is quickly released into the bloodstream, but it doesn’t stay there for very long.
In fact, it’s used up quickly as energy, resulting in a drop in blood sugar levels (sometimes to lower levels than you started off with).
Maintaining stable blood sugar levels
The good news is, you can help stabilise your mood by maintaining steady blood sugar levels throughout the day.
One way to do this is to source snacks which release sugar more slowly into the bloodstream, so you don’t experience spikes and crashes.
Nutritionally speaking, a piece of fruit such as a banana, or a slice of wholemeal bread is a good choice. These foods will raise your blood sugar for a longer period, thereby elevating your mood for longer too.
Feed your mood – can these foods make you feel happier?
We’re all aware that a healthy, balanced diet can help with weight management and reduce the risk of disease, such as heart disease and diabetes.
But did you know that an unhealthy diet is also a risk factor for depression? A growing body of scientific evidence points to a link between mental health and the consumption of junk food.
Eating processed food on a regular basis can often lead to feelings of depression6,7 highlighting the importance of fuelling both your mind and body with the right foods.
Below is a list of nutritious foods that could provide an extra energy (and associated mood) boost:
- Eggs – Eggs are an excellent source of protein and also contain choline, a nutrient important for nerve function (in terms of neurotransmitter production) and to improve mood. Additionally, they are very satisfying, and a great source of energy to fuel your day.
RECIPE COLLECTION: A dozen things to do with eggs
- Salmon – Salmon is rich in EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), two omega-3 fatty acids crucial for brain and nervous system development. There is a growing body of evidence indicating that individuals who consume more omega-3 fatty acids are less likely to experience anxiety and depression 8,9.
- Turkey – Turkey contains tryptophan that helps us produce serotonin. Low levels of tryptophan can lead to lower production of serotonin, which is associated with increased risk of irritability and developing depression. Turkey also contains zinc. Zinc deficiency has been linked to anxiety and bad mood 10,11.
- Pumpkin seeds – Pumpkin seeds are a good source of magnesium. Although more research is needed, several studies are pointing to a possible link between magnesium deficiency and depression.
- Legumes – Most of us need to eat more fibre, which can help keep our energy levels steady during the day. Legumes, such as chickpeas, lentils and soy beans are a fantastic source of both fibre and protein.
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The food-mood balance
Here are some key strategies to help maintain an optimum mood-food balance:
- Keep yourself hydrated – To prevent dehydration, which can reduce cognitive function, ensure that you drink enough fluids.
- Cut down on caffeine – Instead of resigning yourself to becoming restless and irritable if you go too long without a caffeine fix, why not opt for healthy herbal teas? They’re warming, delicious and packed with antioxidants.
- Eat frequently – Eating smaller portions on a regular basis keeps your blood sugar levels up, which means they’re less likely to crash, helping to prevent sudden tiredness and irritability.
- Eat more protein – All proteins are made of amino acids such as tryptophan, which can be found in many foods (e.g. eggs, nuts, tofu and chicken) and has been associated with healthy brain function.
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- Eat your greens – Lack of folate in the diet has been with linked with an increased risk of developing depression. Try to include more foods that contain folate, like dark leafy greens.
- Get enough sleep – Try to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep every night. We all know that we perform and feel better when we’ve had a good night’s rest.
- Move more – Exercise releases endorphins in your brain, which makes us feel happy!
Take home message
While food may not always be the solution to a down day, there is growing scientific evidence that links food and mood, although more research is needed in this area.
As ever, a healthy balanced diet is the key to maintaining good health, and keeping your mind and body strong, healthy and happy12.
WW Freestyle™ is a holistic weight loss and wellbeing programme that helps you lose weight, sleep better and feel happier.* If you have similar goals, find out more and start your journey today.
*Six-month pre-post study on 152 participants, conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Weight Research Lab. Study funded by Weight Watchers. Sleep data and happiness data reported by trial participants after 6 months on WW Freestyle based on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index and the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire.
1. Nehlig, A. (2013). The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 75 (3), 716-27.
2. Marsh C.E., Green D.J., Naylor L.H., and Guelfi KJ. (2017). Consumption of dark chocolate attenuates subsequent food intake compared with milk and white chocolate in postmenopausal women. Appetite, 116, 544-551.
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