THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Food For A Good Mood

What you eat has a profound effect on your mood and thinking today and your risk for depression and dementia down the road. How do I know? I've been studying the link between what we eat and how we feel since the early 1990s.

I can't tell you how many times people have taken my feel-good diet advice over the years and said to me, "I never knew I could feel this good!!" No, I'm not talking peanut butter cups here, but nutritious foods that have been scientifically shown to tweak brain chemistry for the better. Choose the right foods at the right times of day and they will keep you on a steady course of feeling and thinking your best.

How Food Boosts Mood

What and when we eat has a profound effect on how you feel, how much energy you have, and whether or not you remember where you put the car keys. In some cases:

  • it is providing the brain with high-quality fuel.
  • it is when, not what, you are eating that leads to depression, fatigue, or muddled thinking.
  • it's too little of one or more nutrients, such as folic acid or vitamin B6, that undermines mood, since these nutrients aid in brain function or help manufacture nerve chemicals that regulate mood.
  • eating too much of something, like sugar, is to blame.
  • nerve chemicals entice us to choose one food over another, such as the nerve chemical NPY (neuropeptide Y) which is high in the morning and turns on our preferences for carb-rich foods, from waffles and pancakes to toast and cereal in an effort to restock glucose stores. Skip this opportunity and escalating NPY levels might lead you to overeat later in the day.

Two Essential Blues Busters

An orchestra of nutrients found in foods act as assembly-line workers in the manufacture of those brain chemicals. For example:

Carbohydrates. It makes perfect sense that we crave carbs when we feel blue. Carb-rich foods stimulate the release of a brain chemical called serotonin that regulates mood, food cravings, and sleep. Carbs also raise levels of endorphins, the feel-good brain chemicals associated with a runner's high.

This might explain why a little sugar helps us cope with stress. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found when stressed-out rats (which are good models for how the stress response works in people) feast on fat and sugar, they are less agitated and much calmer than rats fed regular chow. In fact, the rats were less able to cope when they didn't get fat and sugar in their diets. The stress hormones apparently signal a craving for sweets, which in turn reign in the stress.

Before you race to the vending machine with a license to binge, keep in mind that just because some is good doesn't mean more is better. While a little sugar might soothe rattled nerves, too much sugar could leave you feeling blue. In fact, depression and fatigue subside in some people when they cut back on sweets. The trick to feeling great is to eat the right amount of the right carbs - that is five or more daily servings of whole grains such as oatmeal and brown rice, and starchy vegetables, such as sweet potatoes - spread evenly throughout the day. Then keep added sugars to a minimum.

Omega-3 Fats: People who consume ample amounts of the omega-3s, especially DHA in fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, trout and tuna, have a much lower incidence of depression, aggressiveness, and hostility. Studies show up to a 50% reduction in depression in people who are the toughest to treat and even an improvement in well-being for those battling every-day blues. Aim for at least 220 milligrams of DHA a day. Or, choose foods fortified with a sustainable, algae-based DHA, such as some brands of milk, soymilk and eggs. The omega-3 fat in flax, walnuts, and other plants won't give you the mood boost.

Timing is Everything

It is not just what, but when you eat that affects mood. Dieting, skipping meals, or eating erratically can lower blood sugar, with symptoms such as weakness, irritability, and fatigue. As a result, the body runs out of energy just like a cell phone you forget to recharge.

Breakfast: This is the most important meal to boost energy, mood, and thinking. People who eat breakfast have more energy, a more sustained good mood throughout the day, they perform better at school and at work, and they sleep better at night, which means they wake up the next day more energized and happy. A doughnut and coffee won't work. A mood-boosting breakfast must follow the 1,2,3 rule:

1) a whole grain to provide needed high-quality carbs for the brain during the morning hours,

2) a little protein to keep you satiated and maintain even blood sugar levels throughout the morning, and

3) 1 and preferably 2 colorful fruits and vegetables.

That is as simple as a bowl of whole grain cereal with low-fat milk and blueberries or a smoothie made from soymilk, fruit, and oats or toasted wheat germ.

Lunch: This meal should be light in both calories and fat, with some protein and high-quality carbs, such as a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with a fruit salad and glass of milk. A low-fat meal that supplies about 500 calories helps you stay alert through the afternoon hours, boosts energy, and fills you up without filling you out. Heavy or calorie-packed meals this time of day will leave you feeling sluggish, both mentally and physically.

Afternoon snack: Mid-afternoon is when we are most likely to turn to food for solace or a pick-me-up. Grab a candy bar from the vending machine and you may set your blood sugar on a roller coaster ride that leads to irritability and a mental fog. Instead, plan ahead by packing a healthy all-carb snack, such as air-popped popcorn or a toasted whole-grain English muffin with jam.

In a nutshell, you will boost mood and memory if you:

1) Curb cravings. If you are a carb-craver, plan a quality carbohydrate-rich snack for your mid-afternoon or late-night snack-attack, such as whole wheat pita with fruit, or have a light, all-carb snack at bedtime to help you sleep.

2) Cut back on sugar. Stress hormones and brain chemicals might entice you to nibble on sweets, but remember, the first two bites satisfy brain chemistry. Anything after that is pure indulgence.

3) Limit caffeinated beverages to two 1-cup (8 ounces) servings a day. Side-step caffeine withdrawal headaches by switching to half-caffeinated, half-decaffeinated beverages.

4) Eat regularly. Severe dieting, eating erratically, or skipping meals upset neurotransmitter levels, leading to feeling grumpy, stressed, or tired. Instead, eat small meals and snacks throughout the day based on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, cooked dried beans and peas, low-fat milk products or fortified soymilk, fish, poultry, and extra-lean meats.

5) Go fish. Include at least two servings a week of fatty fish, or add foods fortified with DHA to the daily menu.

6) Drink water. Even mild dehydration results in fatigue, poor stamina, reduced short-term memory, and poor concentration.

7) Take a moderate-dose multiple vitamin and mineral supplements to fill in the gaps on days when you don't eat perfectly.

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