Eat to be happy
Kristina Campbell, MSc
What we eat does more than fuel our body, it may also affect our mood. Want to get happy? Feast on wild salmon, high in omega-3s, and other fruits and veggies.
If you find yourself sitting at the kitchen table with your head in your hands, your might think it’s because of the tense phone call you had earlier. But think about what you’ve been eating. It turns out the food we eat can have a significant effect on our mood.
Brains burn fuel
Circumstances can surely make you feel angry or low, but if the black cloud never seems to lift, it could mean a brain that’s not nutritionally equipped to weather life’s normal ups and downs.
“When we talk mental health, we’re really talking brain health,” says Dr. Drew Ramsey, Columbia University MD and co-author of The Happiness Diet (Rodale Books, 2012).
“We know the brain is the most metabolically active organ you have: it burns more of the fuel you eat than any other organ. Starting with food seemed like an obvious thing that we had been missing in mental health and in medicine.”
So while mood is subjective and internal, it may not be entirely separate from the realm of biology. A growing body of research shows food can have a powerful influence on mood by keeping the brain in good physical shape.
Blue mood and food
A low mood can be described as feeling pessimistic, irritable, tearful, or dark. These feelings may be so persistent that they seriously interfere with social and occupational functioning. Countless others, however, just wish a positive attitude was more effortless in their day-to-day activities.
“We’ve always thought about nutrient deficiencies, which have very clear mental health effects,” Ramsey says. In other words, sometimes feeling down, like any other medical symptom, can be associated with an objective nutritional deficiency.
Research shows that insufficient folate, vitamin B12, or iron can interfere with neurotransmitters and cause a negative frame of mind. In addition, low omega-3 fat concentration is under investigation for possible links to poor mood.
Glycemic ups and downs
Another biological correlate of negative mood and lower quality of life is glycemic variability, or constant fluctuation in blood sugar. Someone who eats quick-burning carbohydrates such as white bread and pastries, for example, is likely to feel emotional peaks and valleys throughout the day, instead of remaining on an even keel.
Bad fats and refined carbs
Ramsey says that a surefire way to bring about these brain-busting conditions is to eat a certain kind of diet: one high in industrial fats and refined carbohydrates. This pattern—typified by sugary breakfast cereals and lunch-break hamburgers—is associated with impairments in the brain’s hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, which leaves the brain without enough resources for all of its cognitive and emotional tasks.
Getting to happy
“When people are in a good mood,” says Ramsey, “the best biological indicator, the best ‘laboratory test’ is that they smile. They’re fun to be around, and they’re optimistic and energetic.”
The question is, what’s the nutritional path to that happy place?
Two big factors in brain health—and therefore mood—are fats and phytochemicals.
“Your brain is 60 percent fat,” Ramsey says. “The highest concentration of the very important long-chained omega-3 fat is directly dependent on how much of those you eat. There couldn’t be a more important, better nutrient than omega-3 fats in terms of brain function.” As important is a proper balance between the inflammation-cooling omega-3 fats and inflammation-promoting omega-6s.
Phytochemicals are “molecules in plants that really influence how our genes are expressed. Well-known phytochemicals include capsaicin in hot peppers and lycopene in tomatoes. Researchers are investigating their potential to fight inflammatory diseases that have a negative effect on the brain, such as type 2 diabetes, as well as their ability to influence cognitive output. They undoubtedly have potent effects on the brain.
Research supports one other category of mood-enhancing foods: those that contain probiotics, or helpful bacteria. Both animal and human studies have shown that consuming bacteria such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus, commonly found in yogurt, can improve reported mood state by creating a harmonious environment in the gut.
The link between diet and gut bacteria is a fast-growing area of scientific discovery. “The type of bacteria that grow in your gut directly relate to the type of foods you eat,” says Ramsey. “If you eat whole food, you cultivate bacteria that promote a healthier immune system, promote decreased levels of inflammation, and likely promote happiness.”
Ramsey warns that achieving a sunny disposition through diet isn’t a straightforward matter. Whether it’s a diagnosed mental illness or just a grumpy spell, he says people often need help putting their knowledge into action.
“We’ve been telling people to eat healthy for so long. And that doesn’t seem to be very effective in changing behaviour,” he says. “We need to do a better job in medicine of telling people what to eat.”
A brain food prescription
That’s exactly what Ramsey tries to do in his own psychiatry practice. In addition to treatments such as medication and talk therapy, he gives patients a “brain food prescription”: a paper that presents pictures of foods specifically chosen for each patient, such as mussels or eggs. He asks the patient to put it on the refrigerator at home, and to focus on the pictured foods when thinking about what to eat.
“A woman who entered my practice recently ... at home would eat a lot of snack foods like pretzels, ice-cream sandwiches, and pizza,” he says. “She’s had a significant shift in her mood and her emotional stability simply by adding more nutrient-dense foods.”
Food as more than just fuel
He says he could cite countless examples of mood turnarounds. Yet he believes the effectiveness of a good diet in lifting people’s spirits is about more than just the nutrients. It’s also about taking better care of ourselves and using food as a way to engage with the world.
“We focus so much on nutrition, but we forget that food is more than just fuel,” he points out. “When people begin to nurture themselves, and when people begin to share food and connect with their food, there are tremendous psychological benefits.”
Foods for enhancing mood
|wild salmon and shrimp||omega-3 fatty acids to fight inflammation and regulate brain chemistry|
|cherry tomatoes and watermelon||lycopene to prevent formation of pro-inflammatory compounds associated with depression|
|chili peppers||capsaicin to reduce general inflammation throughout the body, including in the brain|
|beets, spinach, beans and lentils, edamame||folate to support good mood and cognitive fitness|
|garlic||chromium and other compounds, which function as natural antidepressants|
|fruit and vegetables||higher consumption is linked to psychological well-being|
Foods that can bring you down
|potato chips and french fries||disproportional amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, which compete with brain-friendly omega-3s|
|margarine||high levels of omega-6 fatty acids|
|white bread and soda crackers||refined carbohydrates, which cause mood highs and lows by spiking blood sugar|