The Link Between Food and Mood

The link between food and mood is the cause of some debate. Is it an artificial link? A purely psychological one? Or is there a chemical component to it? Though these are difficult questions to answer in depth, few would dispute the notion that there is some link between food and mood. In his article about nutritional healing, Dr. David Kolowski writes, “You don’t think food can affect your mood? That late-night tub of ice cream would love to console you!”

Given such an example that many of us can relate with, it’s difficult to dispute the notion that what we eat affects our mood altogether. But what exactly is the link? Let’s consider some of the questions I pose above.

Is the Link Artificial?

Some in the health community approach this topic with a simple explanation: it’s a myth. According to this line of thought, if you eat a tub of ice cream late at night expecting to feel better, you might get a lift. However, whatever alleviation you feel has more to due with the placebo effect than anything else.

According to studies into the psychological effects of eating comfort food, this is indeed the case. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that while many of us believe that comfort foods can help get rid of negative moods, the truth is that negative moods dissipate gradually on their own. If you reach for the ice cream when you’re feeling down and then feel better an hour later, it’s easy to credit the ice cream. But at least some research suggests that you would have started feeling better by that point anyway, with or without the treat.

Is the Link Psychological?

The University of Michigan study should be taken seriously as it indicates that some of our notions of comfort food may be based on questionable reasoning. However, that doesn’t mean there are no psychological links between what we eat and what sort of mood we’re in. The idea that food, mood, and general wellness are at least somewhat connected is backed up by the fact that working in related fields often involves some training in psychology as well as educating individuals on proper health and diet decisions.

How exactly does that work? If the mental link between food and mood can be chalked up to the placebo effect, how is it that psychology is relevant in health-related fields? The answer, at least in part, is that it’s not just about individual meals or comfort food in general. Rather, how food makes you feel is more of a long-term, all-encompassing thing. A single tub of ice cream or one healthy meal doesn’t matter as much as a balanced routine that keeps you healthy over the long run. Eating the right food consistently fosters a sense of structure, accomplishment, and confidence. While there are specific nutritional links as well, which we’ll get to below, these are legitimate psychological perks.

In his 1958 article “Guideposts to Mental Health,” Dr. Royal Lee writes: “A brief review of the symptoms that may be caused by disturbances in the body chemistry will make obvious to anyone how impossible it is to be able to enjoy life—a prerequisite to mental health—in the presence of these chemical derangements.”

Dr. Lee concludes his article with a basic food lesson that says it all:

“The balance of acid and alkaline minerals can only be accomplished in the body if it is supplied with each in the diet. Whole wheat, with its phosphorus-rich bran, is a good source of the acid minerals; white bleached flour is not. The green leafy vegetables, rich in organic potassium, are a good source of alkaline minerals, preferably in the raw state. The best way to avoid rapid fall in blood sugar is to avoid refined sugars, as found in doughnuts, pies, cakes, ice cream, candy, and other forms of sweets.

“If we examine the diet of white flour, particularly no green leafy vegetables, and excessive refined sugars, we can readily understand why instability of the nervous systems is an almost universal complaint.”

Where to begin?

To get you off on the right foot, consider meal prep. This is a fantastic way to make sure you’re getting the right nutrients, and it will give you a sense of control every day. Meal prep doesn’t have to entail that much work when you have specific plans and the corresponding tools to achieve them. Big batches of stews, whole grains, proteins, and vegetables can all be steamed or slow cooked in a rice cooker. This significantly cuts down your work and allows you to mix and match your meals throughout the week. You can then store your meals in partitioned containers to easily grab come meal time. Imagine being able to eat delicious and nutritious meals all the time, which can likewise help you monitor a well-balanced diet.

Deakins University epidemiologist Felice Jacka studied the therapeutic impact of a healthy diet and determined that proper nutrition can have a lasting, positive effect on mental health. The study assessed 67 subjects suffering from depression and found that participants given nutritional counseling, as opposed to social support, felt significantly happier after 12 weeks. In other words, positive dietary changes had a greater effect than social support.

When it comes to moods, mental states, and foods, the specifics can be complicated. But by and large, the picture is fairly clear. The idea that a single meal can cause a direct shift in mood is possible but not proven. However, eating a consistent, balanced diet has obvious psychological benefits. It seems clear that embracing better nutrition can lead to long-term improvement in your mental outlook.

Exclusively written for Selene River Press by Amanda Stevens.

Image from iStock/dragana991, AndreyPopov (post).

Amanda Stevens

Amanda Stevens is a foodie and a writer who loves to travel. When she’s not looking for the newest restaurants in town, you’ll find her tending to her garden.

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