We’ve likely all been there. Whether it’s work stress, school assignments or a meeting gone horribly wrong, we get stressed or frustrated and reach for high-calorie, unhealthy foods. But does what we eat really affect how we actually feel?
That might seem like a silly question, but consider some of the reasons we choose the foods we eat. Is it a comfort food? Is it a craving? Ever felt “hangry?” All of these are more emotional reasons for eating. With that in mind, consider how you might feel differently if you changed the foods you ate.
Sugary, sweet desserts or salty fries are some foods that cause a reaction in the brain reward center similar to the reaction seen with drug addiction. While these foods may make us feel good momentarily, their effects wear off quickly and may leave us feeling even worse.
On the other hand, some foods are more likely to boost your mood long-term than others. Recent research from Australia found that those consuming more fruits and vegetables had higher levels of happiness, life satisfaction and well-being.
Building on this idea, plant-based diets have been associated with improved mood, lower rates of depression and higher life satisfaction scores. This is likely due to a variety of factors including high levels of antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables. Additionally, nutritional deficiencies including vitamin B12, folate and zinc can cause depression symptoms, so a diet rich in plant foods that contain these nutrients may correct these deficiencies and reduce symptoms.
Other important nutrients for brain health are omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). EPA in particular has been shown to reduce symptoms (pdf) of depression. Foods rich in omega-3s include flaxseeds, walnuts, leafy greens and fatty fish.
While mental health isn’t strictly linked to diet, it certainly plays a role. Multiple nutrient deficiencies can disrupt neurological function. However, more than any single nutrient, our overall eating habits are strongly linked to how we feel.
Our “standard American diet” (SAD) is full of highly processed foods, and is greatly associated with increased risk of depression, mild cognitive impairment and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Conversely, a “whole foods” style diet is correlated with reduced risk of depressions and other mental illnesses.
Gut Health and Feelings
Did you know that 90 percent of our serotonin receptors are located in our gut, not our brains? Gut health and the human microbiome (or gut environment) have become the focus of a fairly new field of study, nutritional psychiatry. Nutritional psychiatry aims to understand the link between what we eat and how we feel.
Our microbiome is made of up billions of bacteria. Keeping these bacteria healthy is important. Not only do “good” bacteria protect the lining of our intestines, but they also protect us from “bad” bacteria, limit inflammation and impact neural pathways between the gut and the brain.
Knowing that what we eat impacts brain function and mood means we need to take good care of our gut. Whole food, plant-based styles of eating, such as a traditional Mediterranean or Japanese diet, have been found to reduce rates of depression. Researchers believe this is due to the high level of unprocessed foods. The high amount of fiber found in unprocessed foods is used by the bacteria in the gut as fuel, keeping them healthy.
Inflammation is another factor that affects how we feel and can lead to some of the major chronic diseases we face, including heart disease, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. The foods we eat, among other things, influence inflammation in our bodies.
A recent review of available research found that vegetarian-style eating produced lower levels of inflammatory markers when compared with nonvegetarian eaters. Recall that fruits and vegetables are rich sources of antioxidants, and these antioxidants fight inflammation.
Conversely, diets high in sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains, red meat and diet soda were associated with higher levels of inflammation. So not only can plant forward meals help us feel better now, they can also help prevent chronic health conditions in the future.
While you may not feel bad on your current diet, I challenge you to try removing processed foods from your diet for a few weeks. Stick to vegetables, fruits, legumes, unprocessed grains, nuts and seeds, with modest amounts of lean meats, fish and dairy. Take note of how you feel. Then gradually add some of your favorite processed foods back into your meal plan and see if you feel different.