We all know that food is powerful. What we eat affects our weight, as well as our overall health, often raising or lowering risk factors for certain diseases. What is less known, however, is the fact that food can also greatly impact our mood.
The foods we eat provide different nutrients to our brains, affecting the hormones and neurotransmitters that dictate our mood. And just as there are some mood-boosting foods that will help you look good and feel good—think leafy greens, fatty fish like wild-caught salmon and avocados—there are others that will leave you feeling worse than when you started chowing down. If you’ve been struggling with depression or lethargy, or just dealing with a case of the blues, the good news is that the solution you’ve been looking for may be right on your dinner plate Limiting these five foods can boost your mood and improve your happiness levels naturally.
Added sugars: Sugar—it tastes so good, but if you’ve ever eaten a whole pint of ice cream in one setting or overindulged on the Halloween candy, you know that sugar doesn’t stay sweet for long. Sugar sends our minds and bodies into a tailspin. After the initial high and inevitable crash, it increases feelings of anxiety, irritability, and depression. It can also hinder the body’s ability to fight stress and illness, making it difficult to unwind and chill out or stave off that nasty virus that’s going around the office. The worst part? Too much of the sweet stuff can lead to a full-blown sugar addiction.
Note, however, that these nasty side effects are from added sugars. Naturally occurring sugars, like those found in fruits, are A-OK. It’s the sneaky sugars that are added to food products—even some you wouldn’t expect, like yogurt, granola and bread—that you need to watch out for.
Alcohol: Winding down with a glass of wine, ushering in the weekend at happy hour and kicking back with a beer at a tailgate are activities so embedded into our culture, it’s difficult to imagine our social lives without them. But if you’ve been feeling down in the dumps, it might be time to evaluate how much and how often you’re drinking. While alcohol can be good for you, imbibing too frequently can leave you feeling pretty crappy—and I don’t mean just that day-after hangover.
While you’re sipping your drink, you might feel cheerier, but your brain is busy at work, as alcohol triggers it to produce hormones that increase feelings of stress and anxiety. As a depressant, alcohol also reduces serotonin, (the “feel good” hormone) and negatively impacts the nervous system, all of which can lead to a bad mood.
This doesn’t mean alcohol needs to be completely avoided, but limiting your intake to just one glass of red wine once or twice a week could make a big difference in how you feel.
Coffee: Most of us kick-start our mornings with a cup of coffee—and with good reason. That cuppa joe is full of antioxidants and can even prevent cognitive decline. But if you’re downing several cups throughout the day, you might be doing more harm than good.
The caffeine in coffee alters our mood by impacting hormones, neurotransmitter function and nerve signaling—the results of which can leave you feeling less than stellar. Coffee can also increase anxiety-like feelings by increasing your heart rate and making you feel jittery. And if you’re a regular coffee addict, just a day without it can cause withdrawal symptoms like headaches, drowsiness and a lack of energy.
If you’re addicted to your daily latte, try replacing your usual cup with tea a few times a week to limit dependence. And if you tend to have more than one cup per day, opt for a decaf or swap in tea or water instead after your first java jolt.
Gluten: It seems like everything is going gluten-free these days—there are rice-based pastas, cookies made from quinoa flour and buckwheat breads. You may have passed right by those foods in your local grocery store and never considered buying them, but the truth is, if you’ve been experiencing changes in your normal behavior, or you’ve been feeling depressed and unusually fatigued, gluten might be the culprit.
For some people, eating gluten increases inflammation in the nervous system, which can cause depression or anxiety. It also causes the immune system to attack the small intestine, resulting in the development of leaky gut that then prevents the proper absorption of certain vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients our minds need to function properly.
You don’t have to have celiac disease to feel the effects of gluten, either. Gluten sensitivity can also drastically impact your health, and it is often much harder to diagnose. Unsure if gluten is affecting your mood? Try going gluten-free for a month and observe how you feel, then slowly re-introduce gluten to your diet and evaluate your mood.
Refined carbs: Comfort food, like a big bowl of spaghetti or a pile of toast, might provide temporary relief after a bad day or fight with a friend. But it turns out that these foods are actually doing more harm than good. Refined carbs—like white bread, pasta and sweets—are packed with sugar. And as we already learned, the inevitable spike and then blood sugar drop that occurs after eating sugar will negatively affect our moods, sending our emotions on the same crazy roller coaster.
Refined carbs also depress levels of serotonin in the brain, making stress and anxiety an almost foregone conclusion. In fact, one study reporting data from more than 70,000 women found that diets high in refined foods were associated with an increased risk of depression.
Keep in mind, though, that our bodies do require carbohydrates—so there’s no need to eliminate carbs altogether. Instead, swap out your white pastas and breads for whole grain varieties and complex carbs, like sweet potatoes.