We Are What We Eat: Food, Mood and Mental Health

“You are what you eat.”

We’ve all heard this saying before, and when I sat down to write this I was curious about the origin of the saying.  It turns out it was written in 1826 by a French physician who strongly believed that what we consume affects our state of mind and our overall health.  In fact, there is evidence that this belief dates all the way back to medieval times, and science has gone on to prove it to be true.

In a lot of ways, we know this instinctively.  When we sit around eating junk food all day (yes, we’ve all had those days at some point including me), we definitely don’t feel our best.  It can cause us to feel negative or give us the blues, or it can become much more serious in how it impacts our mental health over time.

In my research, I even came across an incredibly fascinating study showing people who consume more vegetables are happier, more engaged and have higher levels of creativity, and the study even cites the growing body of evidence that is suggesting fruit and vegetable consumption is correlated with an increase in overall life satisfaction.  (1)

Additionally, when discussing how food impact mood and life satisfaction, it’s important to examine blood sugar levels.  Most mental and physical activities we perform as humans depend on blood sugar, also known as blood glucose levels.  In a healthy individual, the body maintains tight control over blood glucose in an effort to keep the body systems regulated.

However, inconsistent blood sugar levels have been associated strongly with various mental health and mood disorders, particularly when consuming foods that are high in sugar or turn to sugar in the body, such as refined carbohydrates.  These foods spike our glucose levels higher than other foods, and how we break them down is the result of our digestive system, which is another reason why healthy digestion is so important to our well-being.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways our state of mind and mental health can be affected by what we eat.

Productivity

Food directly impacts our cognitive performance, which explains why a lower-quality meal for lunch can lead to midafternoon cravings and poor mental performance for the afternoon.

Various foods react in different ways with the body. Refined carbohydrates such as breads (particularly white flour), pastas, cereals and pop rapidly spike our glucose levels and then follow with a slump.  Meals high in low-quality fat such as fast-food cheeseburgers do not release glucose as quickly as refined carbs, but take longer for our digestive system to break down.  When the digestive system is having to work extra hard to digest a high-fat, high-carb or overly large meal, it can cause you to feel drowsy or lethargic.  This is one of those times you just want to take a nap, and as a result, productivity decreases.

Self Control

Self control is defined as the ability to override one’s natural habits or impulses.  Even a small act of self control, such as refraining from popping that candy your coworker gave you into your mouth, depletes the supply of self-control in the body.  Self control appears to be a limited supply of energy that is believed to be largely dependent on stable blood sugar levels in the body (2).  All the more reason to allow yourself an #IntentionalEdible on a regular basis to avoid exhausting your willpower.

Lack of sleep also contributes to increased cravings and ultimately lower willpower and self-control, so making sure to get as much quality shut-eye as possible is key.

Emotional and Mental Health

Diabetes is a result of the body’s inability to regulate insulin in the body, which causes a more extreme and potentially life threatening form of irregular blood sugar levels.  Diabetes has also been strongly associated with a wide range of mood and mental health disorders including depression and anxiety.

Insulin also regulates the brain’s supply of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with motility in the intestinal tract along with motor activity and the pleasure centre of the brain.  Dopamine signaling disruptions have been associated with various mental health disorders including depression, schizophrenia and even Parkinson’s disease. (3)

Even without a formal diagnosis of any type of mental health disorder, poor regulation of blood sugar by eating foods that contribute to sharp spikes an crashes as linked to mood swings, more negative feelings, and irritability.

Foods that contribute to improved mood

Carbohydrates

While refined carbohydrates can spike blood sugar only to be followed by a slump, consuming quality carbs is important for many people, particularly in regards to the production of serotonin.  Serotonin is known to many of us as the “happy” chemical, and behaves as a messenger between brain cells influencing our mood.  Higher serotonin usually leads to improved mood.

How do we increase serotonin?  It is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan, which is found in high quality carb-rich foods.  This includes foods like legumes (excluding peanuts, which can cause issues for many people due to the type of mold that grows within them), sweet potatoes and other fresh fruits and vegetables.  The amount of quality carbs needed can vary widely depending on the individual, as some function better on fewer carbs than others.

**Sunlight also increases serotonin levels.  Great excuse to get outside for a walk!

Blood Sugar Regulation

Regulating blood sugar is such a wide ranging issue that I’ve done an entirely separate post on it that you can find here.  Be sure to check it out for all the ways to balance your blood sugar and your mood at the same time!

 

For more info check out this video I put together:

 

References

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25080035

(2) http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1088868307303030

(3) https://psychcentral.com/news/2010/06/10/impaired-glucose-schizophrenia-may-be-related/14442.html

Other references:

https://hbr.org/2014/10/what-you-eat-affects-your-productivity

https://carlohamalainen.net/stuff/Gailliot%20Baumeister%20%20The%20physiology%20of%20willpower%3A%20linking%20blood%20glucose%20to%20selfcontrol.pdf

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25080035

https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/foodmood.pdf

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