Grumpy and out of sorts on occasion? It’s possible that everything you munch and nibble throughout the day could be a culprit.
Studies confirm that food choices directly influence body chemistry affecting things like blood sugar and levels of mood-influencing chemicals in the brain, both of which can impact the overall way you feel.
You can think of these ingredients [in processed foods] as triggering a stress response, because basically the body does not recognize them as food.
— Annie B. Kay, dietitian
Want to improve mood? Employing these five food strategies, say experts, might help you eat your way to a happier outlook:
1. Start the day with a mood-enhancing breakfast
Scientific fact: What you choose to eat at breakfast can impact mood for the entire day, says registered dietitian Elizabeth Somer, a longtime food and mood expert and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness.
Refined carbs like breakfast pastries (toaster pastries, giant muffins, coffee shop scones) spike blood sugar and then hours later send it plummeting down into the dumps, making you irritable and cranky.
Conversely, choosing a.m. foods wisely makes you less likely to experience swings in mood.
What’s the best morning repast for a fiftysomething? “I call it the 1-2-3 breakfast,” says Somer. “Number one is to include protein from either milk, yogurt, eggs or peanut butter. Two is some kind of whole grain that can deliver glucose to the brain. And number three is two fruit servings.”
This formula strikes a balance with nutrient-dense choices that keep blood sugar and mood on an even keel. One morning it could be a whole grain cereal with low-fat milk and blueberries. The next, that 1-2-3 breakfast could be a corn tortilla stuffed with scrambled eggs and fresh salsa along with a side of fresh fruit.
2. Opt for the right kind of omega-3s
Regardless of the mood disorder, studies show a 50 percent improvement in mood when omega-3 fats are increased in the diet, Somer says.
In fact, the American Psychiatric Association now suggests practitioners use omega-3 fats, in addition to whatever medication is prescribed, when treating mood ailments. The why is simple.
“Our brains are 60 percent fat,” explains Somer. “The more flexible these fats, the lower the risk for mood issues.” And polyunsaturated omega-3 fats are the epitome of flexible.
No doubt, you’ve heard of them when it comes to preventing heart disease, but studies show they are just as crucial for brain health and warding off everything from depression to Alzheimer’s.
Two of the most important omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). For brain and improved mood, putting two servings of fatty fish (salmon, sardines, herring) on the menu per week nets just the right amount of these omega-3s.
Rather eat walnuts or flaxseed? Foods rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3 fat, probably won’t help cheer you up. Unfortunately, “there is no body of research that alpha-linolenic acid does anything for mood, brain, or memory,” Somer says.
3. Keep up on your B vitamins
In 2010, researchers at the Chicago Health and Aging Project noticed a link between high levels of vitamins B6 and B12 in the diet and a lower chance for depression, which is common in older adults.
The study examined 3,503 adults 65+ (59 percent of whom were African American), over an average of 7.2 years.
“Our data showed that … higher intakes of vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 were associated with lower likelihood of depressive symptoms,” says lead researcher Kimberly Skarupski, now an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Speculation is that deficiencies in these B vitamins, as well as B9, or folate, can lead to elevated homocysteine levels, which, in turn, have been associated with depression.
So how do you tell if a deficiency in B vitamins is impacting brain chemicals and mood?
Blood tests, says Skarupski, something fiftysomethings should have measured as part of a routine health or wellness screening. In the meantime, she suggests a diet rich in foods that contain all of these B vitamins, “ideally a Mediterranean-based diet.”
4. Eat less sugar and refined foods — far less
Sugar and refined foods deliver a triple blow to mood.
“First, they jack blood sugar really high,” only to be followed by dramatic and cranky blood sugar lows, says Somer. Secondly, candies, chips and refined treats are typically devoid of the nutrients that keep the brain healthy.
And finally, there’s the issue of how these foods directly impact brain chemicals that influence mood, neurotransmitters like dopamine.
“Refined grains and sugar impact brain chemistry by down-regulating dopamine,” explains Somer. “At first, eating refined foods and sugars might improve your mood,” she explains. “But then it starts to take more and more of these foods to get that improvement and just keep mood stable, not elevate it.”
Annie B. Kay, a dietitian, author of the award-winning book Every Bite Is Divine, and lead nutritionist at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Mass., agrees. She says what starts out as enjoyment can turn into habit or addiction.
“I see it in the field all the time, how refined foods, and particularly sugar, have this pull on people,” Kay says.
How do you short-circuit an attraction to sweets or chips or toaster pastry? Kay suggests a two-fold approach that includes becoming more mindful when eating, and learning to meditate. Both practices help re-engage the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that supports you in making healthy food choices.
5. Focus on whole foods and traditional diets
A whopping 70 percent of the food Americans eat is refined — packaged cereal, canned soup, frozen dinners, chips — according to Kay. Unfortunately, there’s a huge nutritional cost for that convenience. They have fewer nutrients that impact mood, plus preservatives, artificial colors and other “non-food” ingredients can wreak havoc on the body.
“You can think of these ingredients as triggering a stress response, because basically the body does not recognize them as food,” explains Kay. “The immune system swings into action, causing inflammation, which is associated with cognitive decline and a variety of other conditions that you can do without.”
In other words, relying on overly processed food is damaging mood and overall health in general. Luckily, the remedy is simple. Eat whole foods, the unprocessed foods that our ancestors ate, as in traditional diets from the Mediterranean or Asia.
Studies are just beginning to look at how these diets impact mood. While scientists tease out the why behind this whole food connection, there is one good theory.
Ancestral or traditional diets put the focus on intact foods that are still in their whole, unprocessed state. On that list: fresh fruits and vegetables, slow-digest whole grains or carbs that don’t spike blood sugar, and anti-inflammatory fats like the kind found in fatty fish.
Bottom line: eat whole foods, the kind Mother Nature provides, and good mood and good health are likely to follow.