by Rachel Nypaver
Can Comfort Foods Make You Sad?
If people were to ask themselves: “Does food affect my physical health?” I am pretty sure there would be a unanimous “yes”.
Again, if people were to ask themselves: “Does food affect my emotional and mental health?” With honest thought, I am also pretty sure most people would say “yes” too. While many people will acknowledge there is a link between food and mental health, the concept is simply often ignored.
But let’s put this into the open right now: The food you eat is directly related to how you feel, both mentally and physically.
We know that an unhealthy relationship with food can end up in one of two extremes: an eating disorder or obesity. In view of a person suffering from either of these disorders, each usually* sprouts from feelings of unworthiness, guilt, or hopelessness. Whether they are eating too little to fuel their body or eating a surplus of unhealthy foods, it is a sign (subconscious or not) that they have a low self-worth. In other words, they do not care about themselves enough to eat a nutritious diet that would keep their body strong and healthy.
* Other causes include lack of knowledge and learned habits.
However this piece is not about disordered eating, but food and how it relates to depression, so let’s take a step back and examine how food can affect our mental health.
The typical American diet is based on processed foods that are stripped of nutrients and fiber, but include added preservatives, chemicals, and hormones. (Sounds delicious already right?) These foods are not just made with un-natural, artificial ingredients, but are un-natural to our body. Similar to how our mind becomes distressed when it’s filled negative and false thoughts, our body becomes distressed when fueled with these foreign foods.
This is where the cycle begins. Nutritional stress (stress created by food because of its’ unnatural properties, plus not getting enough of the nutrients we need) affects our psychological stress and vice versa. A stressed body equals stressful, depressed thoughts. A stressed mind often causes people to eat stressful foods.
So what’s going on in our body when we eat?
Extra blood is being drawn to the stomach to aid in digestion. When the foods we eat are unnatural, this takes an extra effort to digest, pooling more blood to our stomachs, and less to our brains. Without the normal amount of blood and oxygen going to the brain, we can’t think properly. This makes us less immune to blocking out negative thoughts.
With this stress also comes a higher level of cortisol. At an acute level, cortisol can be good (think quick reaction in an emergency). Chronic cortisol, however, can lead to fatigue. This high stress and chronic high cortisol state has a negative effect on our serotonin levels, a chemical in our body that elevates moods. In other words, low levels of serotonin can lead to depression.
The body has a quick fix to raise serotonin, however. The fix is sugar. The healthy way to get this fix and raise serotonin would be to eat fruit, as our ancestors did. For most people today, this means comfort foods, foods high in fat and processed carbohydrates, like chips, white bread, ice cream, caffeinated drinks, and chocolate. This “quick” fix also leads to a “quick” and short-lived boost in mood before we crash…hard. Plus, we now feel guilty for eating the unhealthy food, making us even more depressed than when we began.
And that is just a short summary of it all.
But, because this post is about eating away depression to increase happiness, it’s time to talk about foods that will make you feel good, or foods that will decrease feelings of depression.
In theory, eating foods that will boost your mental health and overall sense of well-being is simple. All you have to do is eat whole foods. (The hard part is that many of us have now become “addicted” to the processed stuff.)
What are whole foods? Foods that come straight from the ground and that have been unhampered by the human hand (or machine). They have not been processed and still retain all of their natural nutrients, and no chemicals, preservatives, or artificial flavors. To be more specific, we can also include the word “organic”. This means no pesticides, no hormones, or any of the above junk.
In other words, we should be eating the same stuff humans did a few hundred years ago (except for maybe the meat if you’re vegetarian).
Eating whole, nutrient dense foods puts less stress on the digestive system, keeping more blood flowing to the brain. It also releases a steady source of energy, so there’s no high and low periods, keeping your serotonin levels balanced. Furthermore, it supplies the body with all nutrients the body needs to function properly.
As Julia Ross says, the author of The Mood Cure, unhappiness is caused by “critically unmet nutritional needs”. In her book, she describes a program she developed that links our mood to balancing four of our body’s neurotransmitters (chemicals that help our brain communicate), fueled by amino acids, that are responsible for producing happiness. What are these four chemicals? Serotonin, catecholamine, GABA, and endorphins. (If those words mean nothing to you, that’s fine. Just know that by eating whole foods meet our body’s requirements for amino acids.) In short, the best way to decrease feeling of depression through food is to eat a well-rounded, plant-based diet. There is no single food that you can add to your diet that will “magically” raise your happiness.
Nevertheless, I can offer you a few foods with vitamins and nutrients shown to elevate mood (Find more info on vitamins and supplements here: http://mindoverdepression.com/natural-antidepressants/ ). Because the term “comfort foods” is already taken, lets call these are “Good Mood Foods”.
- Buckwheat – Buckwheat has a high amount of the amino acid tryptophan (yes, the same amino acid that gets a bad rap every Thanksgiving when people starting falling asleep after stuffing themselves) which elevates mood and clarity. Serotonin, that mood elevating chemical in our bodies, is actually formed from tryptophan. (Tryptophan -> 5HTP -> Serotonin)
-For a more detailed description, check out the link from whole foods: http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=103 -You can use buckwheat as a substitute for rice, oatmeal, or in the flour form in breads.
- Flaxseeds: Flaxseeds are high in Omega-3s, which have been getting a lot of exposure lately from mental health researchers. Sprinkle flaxseeds over salads, cereals, or really any meal for a bit of a nutty flavor. In flour form, you can also substitute it for wheat or white flour in many recipes, or mix with water in substitution of an egg!
-Other foods high in Omega-3s include: walnuts, olive oil
- Spinach: Spinach is really a great food altogether. I almost never go a day without eating spinach and/or kale. In terms of fight depression, spinach offers a high amount of magnesium, which helps regulate the nervous system and helps in energy production.
-Other food sources: Swiss Chard, Pumpkin Seeds And now, some good alternatives to the normal sugary foods that can really help you get through a rough spot:
- Berries (any) – Berries are high in antioxidants and for years have been linked and praised for their benefits to mental clarity. Berries are also high in natural sugar, aka what your body is craving when stressed. So, instead of reaching for that candy bar, try some blueberries first. Just make sure you buy organic (they can be fresh or frozen)!
- Trail Mix- If you need that extra crunch, and some satisfying healthy fat and protein, a good, all natural trail mix is a great way to go. Raisin and cranberries will provide the sugar fix, almonds, cashews and other nuts and seeds, will cover the need for protein, and some granola will give you the crunch. Warning: Not all trail mixes are created equal! Many of the ones you see in stores have added sugar and preservatives. I usually buy mine at a health foods store, but you can easily make your own as well. Also, be careful because most trail mixes are high in calories. For a lighter alternative, substitute the oat for popcorn.
- Cacao (Raw)- Yes, cacao is where chocolate comes from. Again, it has a huge amount of antioxidants, minerals, and includes tryptophan. You can sprinkle raw cacao on assortment of things, like oatmeal and smoothies. But, if you want the chocolate, just go for the bar with high percentages of cacao. I usually shoot for above 70%. However, I found if I buy above 80%, the boys in my house won’t eat it. Also, only eat a few squares at a time! (http://foodbabe.com/2011/10/30/superfoods-to-the-rescue/)
- And finally, if you really, really need that ice cream…go for it. Just try some of the dairy free alternatives, made with almond or coconut milk. They taste just, if not more amazing. Plus, as they come in small containers and are bit more expensive, it’s unlikely you’re going to eat a whole carton by yourself.
For a quick review, I’m going to sum the above up into 2 simple sentences: Eating junk food = Feeling like Junk. Eating WHOLE FOODS = Feeling Whole.
Happy for No Reason – Marci Shimoff
THRIVE: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life – Brendan Brazier
For more on the author check out RachelNypaver.blogspot.com. Be sure to check out her Peak Training: Body page for recipes to get your mind and body feeling better.