Vicki Koenig, MS, RD, CDN
How we feel affects our food choices. And food affects how we feel.
The mood–food connection
People eat out of sadness, celebration, stress, loneliness, boredom and habit. Our emotions influence what and how much we eat.
Brian Wansink, Ph.D. of Cornell University studies what affects eating and how much. His studies suggest how moods affect our eating.
- Sad people tend to overeat with unhealthy food choices. They often eat to uplift their mood with a tasty indulgent snack or binge.
- Happy people tend to overeat less and choose healthier foods. They also consider the long term, so they choose healthier comfort foods.
His research suggests that if you’re feeling sad, a temporary cure may be to eat an indulgent food to give you a burst of pleasure. We can sustain a happy feeling by eating a more nutritious and guilt-free food.
The food–mood connection
Foods can also impact the way we feel. Need to feel alert? Choose lean protein foods. Want to relax? Have a carbohydrate-rich snack. The concepts of the “power lunch” and the relaxing effects of carbs are true and can be used to your advantage.
Certain foods increase neurotransmitter production. Neurotransmitters communicate from one nerve cell to the next. Some excite and some calm. Here's an example of how some foods contribute to moods:
|Nutrient||Food sources||Neurotransmitters||Likely effect|
|Protein||Meat, dairy, eggs, cheese, fish, beans||Dopamine, norepinephrine||Increased alertness, concentration|
|Carbohydrate||Grains, fruits, sugars||Serotonin||Increased calmness, relaxation|
|Excess calories||All foods, especially fat||Reduced blood flow to the brain||Decreased alertness, concentration|
- High-protein, low-carbohydrate foods high in the amino acid tyrosine can jump-start brain production of dopamine and norepinephrine. Lean sources are best for quicker digestion and entry of tyrosine into the bloodstream.
- Carbohydrates stimulate the release of insulin, which helps the amino acid tryptophan enter the brain to produce more serotonin. With more simple sugars in the meal, more serotonin is produced, and you feel relaxed. Slower insulin-release carbs like legumes, whole grains and vegetables will cause less serotonin production. These are still calming.
- Too much food leads to “food coma,” decreased alertness or sedation.
Triggering your brain and moods with foods
If you're sad, eat a small amount of serotonin-producing carbs like cereal, pasta or yogurt with fruit to elevate your mood. Avoid binging or too much simple sugar, or you'll numb yourself. Need alertness? Eat lean protein with low carbs to get your mental juices flowing.
The more you see how moods affect foods and vice versa, it becomes clear that “you are what you eat.”
For more information:
- Garg N et al. “The Influence of Incidental Affect on Consumers’ Food Intake.” Journal of Marketing 2007;71(1):194–206.
- Prasad C. “Food, mood and health: a neurobiologic outlook.” Braz J Med Biol Res [online] 1998, 31(12):1517–1527.
- Wansink, Brian. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. Bantam Books, 2006.
- Wurtman RJ et al. “Effects of normal meals rich in carbohydrates or proteins on plasma tryptophan and tyrosine ratios.” Am J Clin Nutr, Jan 2003;77(1):128–132.