By Deborah Kesten, VIP Contributor at Thrive Global
Is there a link between the food you eat and how you feel? Absolutely! More and more studies are shedding light on the link between what you eat and the power of food to improve your mood and fill you with feel-good feelings (love, joy, gratitude, etc.); or conversely, to bring on negative emotions (such as depression, irritability, and anxiety). Be assured: The age of ‘food and feelings’ has arrived!
Consider these state-of-the-art developments in the frontier field of food and mood:
- Nutritional Psychiatry. Psychiatrist Uma Naidoo, MD, is Founder and Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and author of This is Your Brain on Food.1
Key concept: Nutritional Psychiatry integrates food-mood interventions with allopathic medications as part of mental health medicine to help treat and prevent psychological and cognitive conditions such as anxiety, depression, OCD, and more.
- Nutritional Psychology. Clinical psychologist Amanda Hull, PhD, Senior Director, Health & Well-Being Delivery at Whole Health Institute, is co-founder of The Center for Nutritional Psychology (CNP).2
Key concept: The goal of CNP is to establish a nutritional component within mental healthcare by consolidating research, developing curriculum, and creating a methodology through which we can view what it calls the Diet-Mental Health Relationship (DMHR).
- Cognitive Nutrition. Arianna Huffington is Founder of Thrive Global and Thrive’s new Nourish Your Body and Mind program for better brain health. Huffington describes Cognitive Nutrition as “a new frontier in healthy eating.”3
Key concept: Cognitive Nutrition is based on the premise that what we eat matters not only to our physical health but also to our cognitive and mental health. Nourish Your Body and Mind offers practical, how-to insights for eating your way to better brain health.
Nutritional Psychiatry. Nutritional Psychology. Cognitive Nutrition. I use the term Psychological Nutrition to identify the growing specialty that investigates how the food we eat impacts how we feel emotionally. Psychological Nutrition is one of the four facets of food in my science-backed Whole Person Integrative Eating® (WPIE) program, which reveals that food has the power to nourish not only physically, but also emotionally, spiritually, and socially. In this way, the four facets of food of WPIE provide a ‘whole person’ relationship to food and eating—one of which includes choosing food for mental and emotional well-being each day.4-7
Origins of the Food-Mood Connection
The idea that the food you eat can actually can actually impact your emotions was given the scientific stamp of approval in the 1970s when Judith Wurtman, PhD, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), discovered what many of us know intuitively: what you eat affects your mind and mood, your tendency to pile on pounds, even your quality of life.
When Wurtman and her husband, Richard Wurtman, MD, also a researcher at MIT, first linked food with mood, it was based on their discovery that both naturally occurring sugar and starch in carbohydrate foods (such as potatoes) as well as sugar added to food products (such as cookies and cake) elevate a powerful, naturally occurring chemical in your brain called serotonin.
Even more fascinating was their discovery about the impact serotonin and other neurotransmitters (substances that pass information from cell to cell in the brain) have on your every mood, emotion, and food craving. For instance, about twenty minutes after you eat a carbohydrate-rich food, your brain releases serotonin; in turn, you feel more relaxed and calm. Want to feel more perky? Consume a lean, high-protein food such as fish, and the substance that’s released (norepinephrine) lets you feel more awake and energetic (unlike the kick you get from caffeine, you’re not stimulated, just more alert).8 Or if you want a natural high, consider choosing vitamin C-rich oranges, legumes, nuts, or dark chocolate—foods that end up as endorphins—substances in the brain that produce pleasurable feelings.9
Happy Gut, Happier You
There’s another powerful side to the food-mood story in addition to the neurotransmitter-emotions link. There is also a gut-brain connection, which tells us that an unbalanced gut (too much “bad” bacteria) can increase odds of negative emotions and stress. And that the opposite is also true: negative emotions can cause an imbalance in your gut, and in turn, negative feelings. Here’s why.
What do industrial farming, farmed fish, pesticides, herbicides, additives, preservatives, and denatured, processed, junk, and fast food with low nutrient availability and lots of added chemicals have in common? They are all part of Western dietary changes over the last seventy years that threaten the stability of both your emotions and your gut microbiome. Made up of trillions of microorganisms that live in your intestinal tract, the microorganisms that comprise your gut microbiome play a critical role in both your mental and physical health.
What I mean is this: The highly processed foods that comprise today’s standard American diet (SAD) contribute to an excess of bad bacteria in your gut; and conversely, high levels of bad gut bacteria up the odds of mood problems like depression and anxiety. In other words, negative emotions alone can also damage gut microflora and create an excess of bad microbes. The end result: the negative emotions-bad microbe cycle continues.10-13
The takeaway: Fast, sugary, processed food may be tasty and soothing, but they can also create imbalances in your gut microbiota that may make you even more prone to anxiety and depression and perhaps emotional eating episodes. The antidote? To make both yourself and your gut “happier,” choose a diet of mostly fresh, whole foods. In other words: happy gut, happier you.
How to Eat for Feel-Good Feelings
What makes a gut microbiome healthy? More “good” microbes and less “bad” microbes. Reducing the amount of processed, high-sugar, high-fat foods that you eat can contribute to better gut health. So, too, can eating a nutrient-dense, whole foods,plant-based diet with smaller (or no) servings of lean, fresh, chemical-free animal foods.
Think of the following tips about feel-good foods as the start of your journey toward eating for balanced mind-body well-being.Keep in mind they’re not a quick fix. Be patient with yourself. Be kind. Be compassionate. Self-growth can be one of life’s most challenging . . . and fulfilling journeys.
1. Choose gut-friendly food.
To ward off or even prevent negative emotions, avoid gut-harming, processed, “downer” foods. Instead, as your most-of-the-time way of eating, choose lots of nutrient-dense, fiber-rich, plant-based foods that can feed good bacteria in your microbiome and keep them plentiful. A sampling:
- Vegetables—such as leafy greens, beets, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, onions, peas
- Whole fruit—such as red, blue, or black berries, cherries, pineapple, oranges, pears, strawberries, pomegranates
- Ancient and whole grains—such as amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, barley, oats
- Beans/legumes—black beans, chickpeas, lentils, Anasazi beans, adzuki beans, black-eyed peas
- Raw nuts and seeds—walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds (ground)
- Herbs, spices, tea—turmeric, cayenne, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage, green tea
- Probiotic foods—yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, fermented vegetables14
- Animal foods—wild fish (such as salmon and trout); grass-fed, free-range, hormone-and-antibiotic-free chicken;pasture-raised, organic beef
2. Be B-wise.
From dreary doldrums to a deeper depression, various B vitamins (there are eight)—B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12—can help you bust the blues. As a step toward defeating depression, consider choosing fresh, whole, chemical-free and organic foods that are B-abundant blues busters. A sampling: spinach, firm tofu, lentils and other legumes (beans and peas), brown rice, mushrooms, avocado, seeds, yogurt, salmon, poultry.15
3. Check in after eating.
It takes about twenty minutes for your brain to register the soothing serotonin effects of say, the nutrient-dense, health-filled quinoa primavera you just ate; or the perk-you-up benefits of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, which can be released when you eat, for instance, quality chocolate with a high cocoa content (75% or higher).
To up the odds of balancing your emotions, take the time to experience and enjoy the sensory and psychological delights of your meal. After eating, take a moment to check in with how you are feeling. Calm? Relaxed? Pleasantly full?4-6, 16
A Revisioning of Nutritional Health
What the new science of ‘food and mood’ teaches us is this: what you eat can lead to either feel-good feelings or negative emotions. Such findings support the Psychological Nutrition component of Whole Person Integrative Eating® (WPIE), which tells us that food influences not only our physical, spiritual, and social well-being, what we eat also impacts mood and emotions. In this way, WPIE gives you the insights you need to re-envision your relationship to food and eating, so that each time you eat, ‘all of you’ is nourished.4-6
Clearly, the well-researched message of food-mood research is a paradigm-shifting view of nutritional health, for it empowers you to take charge of your mental well-being each time you eat. Consider trying this: Beginning with your next meal, use state-of-the-art ‘food-mood’ findings to eat for feel-good feelings (see “How to Eat for Feel-Good Feelings,” above, to get started), and in this way, take charge of your mental health. One meal at a time.
- Uma Naidoo, MD, This is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More (NY, NY: Little, Brown Spark, 2020).
- The Center for Nutritional Psychology, https://www.nutritional-psychology.org (accessed February 12, 2022)
- Arianna Huffington, “Why Cognitive Nutrition is the New Frontier in Healthy Eating,” ThriveGlobal.com: Nutrition, https://thriveglobal.com/stories/arianna-huffington-cognitive-nutrition-healthy-eating-habits/?utm_source=Newsletter_General&utm_medium=Thrive (accessed February 2, 2022).
- Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz, “Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Program for Treating Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal 14, no. 5 (October/November 2015): 42–50.
- Larry Scherwitz and Deborah Kesten, “Seven Eating Styles Linked to Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 1, no. 5 (2005): 342–59.
- Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz, Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Breakthrough Dietary Lifestyle to Treat the Root Causes of Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity (Amherst, MA: White River Press, 2020).
- Pleakse visit www.IntegrativeEating.com to learn more about the Whole Person Integrative Eating model and program, and the “Foundations of Whole Person Integrative Eating” certification course for certified and licensed health professionals (www.IntegrativeEating.com/Training).
- Judith J. Wurtman, Managing Your Mind and Mood through Food (New York: Rawson Associates, 1986).
- Jetro J. Tuulari, Lauri Tuominen, et al, “Feeding Releases Endogenous Opioids in Humans.” The Journal of Neuroscience, 2017; 37 (34): 8284.
- Human Microbiome Project, The NIH Common Fund. https://commonfund.nih.gov/hmp, retrieved September 10, 2018.
- J. Cryan, S. O’Mahony, “The microbiome‐gut‐brain axis: from bowel to behavior,” Neurogastroenterology Motility 23 (2011): 187–92.
- L. Goehler, M. Lyte, R. Gaykema, “Infection-induced viscerosensory signals from the gut enhance anxiety: implications for psychoneuroimmunology,” Brain Behavior and Immunology 21 (2007): 721–6.
- J. Cryan, T. Dinan, “Mind-altering microorganisms: the impact of the gut microbiota on brain and behajvior,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 13 (October 2012): 701–12.
- M. Pinto-Sanchez, “Probiotic Bifidobacterium longum Reduces Depression Scores and Alters Brain Activity: A Pilot Study in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome,”Gastroenterology 153, no. 2 (August 2017): 448–459.
- Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz, Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Breakthrough Dietary Lifestyle to Treat the Root Causes of Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity (Amherst, MA: White River Press, 2020), Chapter 6, Emotional Eating Rx: Positive Feelings, pgs. 79-80.
- Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz, Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Breakthrough Dietary Lifestyle to Treat the Root Causes of Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity (Amherst, MA: White River Press, 2020), Chapter 1, Discovering Whole Person Integrative Eating, pgs. 15-16; Chapter 6, Emotional Eating Rx: Positive Feelings, pgs. 71-73.