PSIPOOK | features | mood food


  Eat yourself happier
by Chris Page
This article first appeared in the September 2005 edition of Kansai Scene

The connection between food and mood seems as intuitive as that between food and health. But is a chocolate treat really the best way to cheer yourself up?

It is simple. You feel a bit down in the dumps, a bit jaded by work or life with your partner, or living in a foreign country, so you indulge yourself with a tub of ice cream or a hamburger or a bar of chocolate. You feel better for a while.

Some individuals with persistent frustrations will soon be back at the comfort food, and they might not realise that their mood enhancing food is actually exacerbating the problem.

Comfort food is often rich, high in carbs and sugar. It is probably processed, it probably burns too fast and lacks many of the right proteins and fats that act as natural and sustainable mood (and energy) stabilisers.

For a graphic illustration, witness the effect of Morgan Spurlock’s exclusive McDonalds diet. In the documentary Super Size Me, he changes in less than a month from bright young thing to hyper-animated zombie. He is listless between meals and apparently stoned after them.

Then there is the tale of Appleton Wisconsin High School, in the US. The school was a basket case, of behavioural problems, weapons, academic non-achievement, violence and suicides. In 1997 fast food and sugary drinks were banned from the school and replaced by natural, unprocessed food, a natural source of some of those positive mood foods. The school went quickly from behavioural sink to a model institution where incidences of the violent, self-destructive and anti-social kind sank to near zero. What’s more, academic performance rocketed.

So how does this work? A lot of our preferred fun foods have a high Glycaemic Index (GI) which means they release their energy quickly. After eating, we are swamped with energy and the temporary mood enhancers like caffeine and sugar. The body burns up the energy too quickly and we crash. The more high GI food we consume, the more we appreciate the rush, the more often we go looking for it — and the more often we mistake it for real benefit. White bread and sugar additives are common culprits.

Good mood foods manage your feelings by balancing energy and nutrition, but also, crucially by managing serotonin levels.
Serotonin is the natural feel-good chemical that the brain produces and is manufactured from the protein tryptophan. It follows that eating foods high in tryptophan will help sustain and enhance positive moods. Lean white meat, bananas, eggs, nuts, wheat germ, avocados, milk, cheese and beans are good.
Once we are producing serotonin healthily, the body needs to be able to make the most of it. The brain is at least 60 percent fat, which is why some people on low fat diets suffer depression. However, you can feed your brain without bloating yourself. Omega 3 and omega 6 fats are found in fish, nuts and seeds, and regular consumption of these has been found to reduce anxiety and depression — and lighten the moods of people who do not suffer these conditions.

The good news here is that a diet that is properly balanced in serotonin and low or moderate GI energy sources will likely reduce the impulse to binge on the things that are less good for us. For example, chocolate addicts who take in extra serotonin find that they lose much of their craving.

So what does the ultimate mood enhancing meal look like? The Food and Mood Project, affiliated to Mind, the mental health charity, recommends non-wheat pasta, tossed with tuna and pesto, an avocado salad with walnuts and seeds, and fruit and oatcake for dessert.

Eating for mood is now taken seriously as an alternative to medication for people with serious anxiety, depression, food addiction or stress, and increasingly, people who suffer none of these problems are incorporating mood foods in their diets as a way to just get more out of the day.

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