Food and Mood

The topic of my conversation today – food and mood.

Specifically, I want to talk about how food can impact our mood and our behaviors. More than that, I want to talk about what we can do to gain a stronger hold over our eating decisions when we’re feeling out of control.

We now have the understanding from research that the foods we eat can actually cause certain mood states. So, how’s this work?

Well, food can impact our mood in three ways:

1. Food helps the brain make mood-changing chemicals called neurotransmitters

2. Food impacts blood sugar levels, which impacts perception of alertness/energy

3. Food is connected with past feelings/experiences

Now, I don’t want to get real technical here. So let ‘s go over some examples instead. Say you’re feeling tired and it’s mid-afternoon. Well, in that case, a high protein snack is perfect. Protein contains an amino acid known as tyrosine, and tyrosine stimulates the release of dopamine and epinephrine. This gives us energy and alertness – with no caffeine required. But we have to be careful not to eat too many carbohydrates with this protein meal.

You see, complex carbs increase the release of serotonin, another neurotransmitter that puts you to sleep. Now, I should also note serotonin alleviates depression, calms the nerves, reduces appetite and helps reduce physical pain. So a meal high complex carbs isn’t great when you need to stay awake. But, when you’re feeling sad or stressed, complex carbs do wonders.

Now let’s talk about sugar. When you choose a snack high in sugar – initially, you feel an increase of energy as blood sugar levels rise. Quickly, however, blood sugar drops because insulin has surged and is clearing out the blood glucose. So you end up feeling as tired, if not more so, than when you started.

That’s another reason protein is a good pick-you-up. It balances blood sugar levels so you don’t get the fluctuations that can cause you to feel energetic one minute and tired the next.

Now, let’s say you’re just starting a new exercise program and are looking for motivation. Omega 3 rich fish oils can be a real asset here – as they impact the dopamine and serotonin systems in the brain, leading to a lower incidence of depression as well as increased motivation. Although food can impact our mood and how we feel, I like to think we’re all in control of our behaviours.

With that said, the presence or absence of certain nutrients can certainly make us more prone to certain actions. For example, ask me whether I was nicer OR meaner to my friends and family when dieting for a competition or better yet just ask my friends or family - 9 times out of 10 will say I was meaner because of the food-related neurotransmitter changes in my brain. In fact, I remember reading a study that showed that the dopamine system in physique competitors eating a chronic low-carb diet matched that of imprisoned violent offenders. And since we don’t see lots of physique competitors on death row, this is a good illustration that – while food can impact our mood – it doesn’t have to impact our behaviour.

Interestingly, though, there have been a number of studies in the UK, US, and Canada showing that giving one multi-vitamin tablet and one omega 3 rich fish oil tablet per day to prison inmates reduced the incidence of violent behaviour by 50%. But this doesn’t just work in prison inmates. The same studies were repeated in primary schools and a similar decrease – about 50% – in playground violence was seen with just a multi-vitamin and fish oil tablet each day.

So there’s some good evidence that the presence or absence of certain nutrients can both impact mood and behaviour.

Ok, let’s talk about a specific behaviour – overeating. A lot of people believe that overeating is a form of self-medicating. Is that true? I’ve heard this said before and, in some cases, it might be. However, overeating is such a complicated thing – with all sorts of social, lifestyle, economic, mental, emotional inputs.

Recently there was a study published showing that overeating could be caused by one or two opposite physiological reasons. The first reason suggests that in some people, food triggers a much bigger pleasure response in overeaters compared to normal eaters. So overeaters just keep eating more, because it feels good, which eventually causes obesity. The second reason suggests that in some people, food triggers a much smaller pleasure response in overeaters compared to normal eaters. So overeaters just keep eating more, because they’re trying to feel good, which eventually causes obesity.

The truth is, my team has trained thousands of people during the last 10 years and we’ve heard people describe both situations. In other clients, though, the reason for overeating isn’t nearly as emotional. It’s that they simply don’t realize that they need to eat less than they are right now.

Really, I’m not kidding. In our coaching program we have lessons where our coaching team takes pictures of their daily meals and shares them with their coaching clients. And, time and time again the clients have these massive ah-ha moments. They’re like – holy crap – that’s what my coach eats? I’m eating twice as much right now. I’d better cut back.

So, sometimes the problem is just that when people hear “eat less” they’re not sure what that means. In the end, overeating happens for hundreds of different reasons – some emotional and some very practical.

Now, when it comes to overeating, it’s mostly sugary and fatty foods that people over eat. I mean, I don’t really hear people saying – oh my gosh, I can’t stop eating this raw broccoli. So why aren’t we overeating on green veggies or even tasty fruits? The simplest reason may be taste. Sugary foods taste good to some people. Fatty foods taste good to other people. And salty foods taste good to other people.

However, as David Kessler talks about in his book The End of Overeating, when we add the right amounts of sweet, salty, creamy, and chunky, we get foods that are damn hard to resist. They light up our taste buds and our mental pleasure centers in such a way that we – as they say – can’t eat just one. And, make no mistake, as a former food scientist, Kessler knows what he’s talking about. Food scientists for the big food manufacturers are hired to create food-like edibles that are delicious and pleasurable in every way – stuff that people can’t resist eating more of.

Unfortunately, veggies and tasty fruits just can’t compare with what food science is bringing to the table. That’s why I always tell clients to fill up with whole foods first. Then, if you have a little room, you can add in a taste of one of these crazy pleasure-foods. This way you’re not displacing the nutrient-rich stuff with fatty, sugary, salty stuff. And, if you’re already pretty full, are much less likely to overeat.

Now I’ve talked a lot about food and mood, as well as overeating. At this point lets talk about what foods best balance out people’s moods while helping control overeating. It’s not as easy as just saying “eat this food for a good mood.” Rather, the first step is to make sure we’re not missing anything important. From our discussion above, I think the best initial nutrition step is to start with omega 3 rich fish oil and a multi-vitamin. That, at least, kicks us off in the right direction since vitamin and omega 3 deficiencies can negatively impact every aspect of health, including mood.

After that, the next step is to make sure that blood sugar is balanced throughout the day. This means eating every 2-4 hours, depending on your personal physiology. But just having a snack isn’t enough. A high carb snack would cause an initial energy spike with a rebound low blood sugar situation. So you’d want a more balanced snack with moderate protein, low-moderate complex carbohydrates, and some healthy fats, like a protein shake using fresh or frozen fruit, a tablespoon of flax oil, and rice milk instead of water. That way you are getting a good balance of protein, fat, and carbs.

Finally, once you’ve corrected your imbalances and managed your blood sugar, you could use specific foods for a boost of energy – when you need that; or a calming-down effect when you need that. However, most of your energy should be spent on the first two steps – fixing the deficiencies and balancing your blood sugar. A lot of people know what they should be eating. But, often, when it’s time to order their meal, they’re so hungry they order things they know better than ordering. How can we fix this? Why do people make bad choices when they know better? Well, it’s because their emotional brain is overriding their rational brain. And when does the emotional brain take over? When we’re feeling sad, angry, stressed, hungry. These feelings are the domain of the emotional brain.

In our coaching program we have a strategy for dealing with the emotional brain called “noticing and naming.” Here’s an example of how that works. Let’s say it’s lunch time and you head out to a restaurant. You haven’t eaten since 7am, so it’s been 5 and ½ hours and you’re starving. Your rational brain says: “get the lean chicken and salad.” Your emotional brain says: “order one of everything – including dessert.” What do you do? Well, first, you notice and name. You say: “ok, I see what’s happening here. My emotional brain is freaking out. And that’s because I’ve got low blood sugar and my neurotransmitters are kicking out signals to FEED.” You just noticed and named. And, once you do that, you’re more prepared to be rational. You say: “But, you know what, I’ll be ok. Even though I’m freaking out a little bit, I’ll survive. I just need to breathe. And then make a good food choice. Regardless of what I chose, the freak out will end when I start eating. So I might as well choose something that’s good for me.

Noticing and naming is an awesome strategy for life in general, not just for nutrition. When we notice and name, we gain control back. And we prevent bad decisions before they happen [rather than feeling guilty for them after they’ve taken place].

Of course, we’ll want to avoid some of these situations in the first place, if we can. And, when it comes to food, that means being prepared. Nutritional control is best preserved – up front – if we’re eating every 2-4 hours, making good selections. By eating frequently and choosing the right foods, we can keep blood sugar balanced and we can remain satiated. This means never getting too low in energy or too hungry. But remember, even those of us who are “perfect” will drop the ball once in a while when it comes to food preparation. And when we do, it’s time to notice, name, and get in control.

Ok, as I wrap this up, what are one or two habits that as a fitness pro I can suggest to clients to help them improve their intake?

First of all too many people are hard on themselves by attempting to change too many things at once. They try to overhaul their diet, their exercise habits, their finances, their relationships, etc., all at once — and each of those changes is probably made up of 10-20 smaller behaviors that have to change. That’s a big mistake. Human beings are impatient. We want instant gratification. We want everything now — or better yet, yesterday.

You see, doing more is the problem! It’s what everyone tries to do. They go in guns blazing, making massive changes across the board, only to collapse in a heap of exhaustion and self-loathing when the first promise to themselves is broken. Of course, you COULD change more than one thing at once, but not for long, and never for long enough to see lasting, sustainable improvement — which is what you really want, isn’t it?

So the real key here is to accept the fact that you can only change one behavior at a time. Try to change more than one thing at a time, and you will fail. It’s really that simple. Now, in terms of habits, we start out pretty simple, with something discussed earlier: take fish oil and a multi-vitamin every day. This habit is easy to do and it produces some pretty important physiological changes.

Other habits we include – one at a time – are:

Eating lean protein with every meal and snack

Saving carb dense meals until after exercise

Eating 5-7 servings of fruits and veggies

Eating breakfast every day

Drinking at least 2L of water per day

You’ll notice none of this is really “fancy.” But that’s the point. People don’t need fancy. They need one honest-to-goodness habit to follow every 2 weeks or so. And, once they’ve mastered that habit, they need a new one. These habits will add up until the person has slowly transitioned their eating from where it was before (usually not so good) to a much better place. If you can’t start all the habits, make the habit easier. Maybe it’s 2 servings of veggies instead of 5. Maybe it’s breakfast just on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Whatever it is, you keep making the habit easier until they can say: “yep, I’m confident I can do that”.

It’s that confidence that builds up motivation and positive momentum.

So start today and make the changes you have always wanted to do!!