By Vanessa Imus, MS, RD
Founding Dietitian of Integrated Nutrition
Food can have an impact on mood in numerous ways. Both the way we eat and what we eat play a role in how we feel throughout the day. Many people have had the experience of being “hangry” (hungry and angry), which is a common symptom of having low blood sugar. It’s a sign that your body needs food more regularly. Follow this 3-step guide to improve your mood through food:
The first step in doing this would be to plan for small meals and snacks frequently throughout the day. The key here is PLAN. Without a plan it’s likely you may forget to eat or easily be tempted by something that is quick and accessible. Aim to eat something every 3-4 hours to keep your blood sugar from getting too low. Great portable snacks may include nuts, fruit, snack bars, jerky, etc. This can also help prevent overeating at meal time. Too much food in one sitting often causes tiredness and difficulty focusing.
The second step is to include protein or healthy fats with most snacks and meals. These macronutrients help slow down the body’s digestion of carbohydrates. This way you get a slow steady increase in your blood sugar and then a slow steady decrease, which will also help you to stay full longer. Compare this to a carbohydrate rich meal (without fats or protein) which leads to a quick spike in blood sugar followed by a rapid decline. You might experiment with this; see how you feel after a breakfast of cereal and juice (carbohydrate-rich meal) and then try eggs and toast (protein-rich meal). Blood sugar spikes can worsen anxiety and also increase inflammation in the body. Going too long without eating also increases cortisol production, which is one of our body’s stress signals. Long term effects of stress may include anxiety, memory troubles, depression, headaches, or weight gain (especially centrally in the abdomen). Balancing blood sugar will help stabilize mood and energy throughout the day.
The third step after balancing blood sugar is to start focusing on HOW you eat. Focusing on the mindful eating takes some time and effort. This means no distractions, just eating. When is the last time you sat down and really chewed your food, enjoying the flavor of each and every bite? This mindful act will actually make your digestive system more efficient with the ability to extract more nutrition from your food. When you slow down to eat it gives your body time to respond accordingly by producing the right digestive enzymes. The act of chewing your food and taking your time at meals also stimulates your parasympathetic system, this has a calming effect on your body. The longer you can be in this state the better the body is able to relax, which over time may help ease anxiety and lower blood pressure.