Food is one of the most debated topics across the world, and rightfully so. With widely prevailing disorders such as binge-eating and anorexia and obesity reaching epidemic proportions worldwide (WHO), not only the scientists but the general public is seen fixating over food choices and dietary change. Food has long been scientifically and factually linked to diseases including diabetes and heart ailments. However, recently multiple researches have shown how food affects mood and mental health i.e. there have been recent rapid advancements in the field of ”nutritional psychiatry” (Eva Selhub MD, 2020 – Harvard Health Blog).
Food as Fuel for the Brain
Our brain works 24/7. Just like a sophisticated machine, our brain needs fuel to function. However, it requires premium fuel for effective functioning. Low-quality fuel (processed and refined nutrient-deficient food) can cause oxidative stress and inflammation i.e. harmful free radicals operating within the domain of your brain. Simply speaking, the food you put through your mouth affects your brain functioning and condition, and ultimately, your mood.
What Science Says
Researchers and scientists have dug deep into the food-mood relationship and have established a correlation between the two. According to science, food impacts your mood and brain health by charging serotonergic responses (Neurolmage, Volume 84, pages 824-832 by Fernández et al) . Millions of nerve cells line your gut. The gastro-intestinal tract is also a host to intestinal bacteria. According to American Psychological Association, 95% of the neurotransmitter called serotonin in your body is produced by these bacteria. Serotonin positively regulates your mood, sleep cycles and is a pain-inhibitor. Here comes the main question: how food is linked to mood? Well, eating healthy, nutrient-dense food promotes the growth of the ‘good’ bacteria in your digestive tract which in turn promote production of serotonin . Consequently, this leads to optimal brain health and a stable positive mood.
Food and Mood Disorders
Food has been clinically shown to be associated with mood disorders including depression and anxiety. Study by Blanchflower et al (2012) found out that a healthy diet particularly fruits and vegetable contributes to high psychological well-being. Similarly, a randomized control trial carried out by Conner et al (2017) showed that fresh fruit and vegetable consumption aid psychological well-being of young adults.
The relation of sugar and mood
Eating large and frequent amounts of processed food and sugar may cause mood disorders because they lead to high spikes of the neurotransmitter dopamine and blood sugar dysregulation. These spikes are high but short-lived, leading to a few moments of happiness. Hence, sugar (found in desserts and refined flour) has been equated with drugs like heroine as it causes an addictive pattern. To enjoy dopamine surges and those few moments of happiness, we tend to satisfy our sugar cravings by consuming more and more. This leads to a vicious cycle of dysregulated blood sugar. When your blood sugar is dysregulated, it causes the body to produce adrenaline, forcing it into a ‘fight or flight’ mode and a state of anxiety and depression. On the other hand, eating a well-balanced diet with fresh fruit, vegetable, whole grains and a moderate quantity of milk and lean protein, provides us with a steady and constant supply of feel-good neurotransmitters and hence let’s us stay in a constant state of ‘good’ mood rather than shifts of short peaks and long lows.
How Much and What to Eat?
By far, we have understood that the kind of food we take into our bodies is important for our mood and mental well-being , but so is the quantity. When we eat too much, it causes weight gain and sluggishness. Eating too little can cause extreme exhaustion in the long run. Hence in both cases, one may fall into the vicious cycle of depression and mood fluctuations. On average, one must eat the WHO recommended calories a day : 2000 calories a day for women and 2500 for men.
When deliberating what to eat?
one must always consider taking in all components of a balanced diet. This includes complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, barley, whole wheat rather than refined white bread or processed carbs such as a bag of chips. Moreover, daily intake of fruits and vegetables containing essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants is not to be forgotten. Lean proteins including meat, eggs and seeds together with fatty acids e.g. in nuts and fish must be eaten frequently. On top, staying hydrated is an equally important part of nutrition and healthy brain and physical health.
Does this mean we can ‘never’ have our favorite dessert?
What we need to comprehend is, as Dr McMordie (MCN,RDN,LD) says, processed food making the major chunk of our daily caloric intake is the main problem as it leaves little to no space to consume nutrient-dense healthy food. Therefore, what is crucial is to develop the habit of mindful as opposed to emotional eating. Eating a cheat meal once in while does not hurt, as long as you are in the habit of eating an adequately balanced, nutrient-dense organic diet . Rather than adjusting a ‘healthy’ snack into a diet of highly refined, unhealthy and unbalanced food intake, you should rather feel free to fit in an occasional cheat meal into an otherwise regular nutrient-rich diet. So, good news folks! You can stay mentally and physically fit while indulging in your favorite ice-cream or that deep-dish pizza, but keep it to just the weekend!