Moody Foodies

How Brain Chemistry Can Affect Our Eating Patterns
by NatureBox Nutritionist Kat Brown, MS RD RYT 

You’ve felt it in your body after you eat- certain foods can totally affect your mood. What about the other way around-have you noticed how you feel can affect what you put in your body? There’s definitely a link between food and mood, backed up by a large body of research. Let’s learn a little more about how our emotions and how we fuel up are intertwined.

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Imagine a cup of hot cocoa, a warm cup of soup, a piece of rich dark chocolate, or the smell of fresh citrus? All of these foods evoke certain nutritional, taste, smell, and texture sensations. After we eat, the combination of the food’s nutritional value and the sensual aspects of food can lead to a chemical response in your brain to increase feel good chemicals. These chemicals are the same ones that increase when we are relaxed, with our loved ones or feeling happy- oxytocin and serotonin. Hence, the mood and food connection.

Serotonin (the neurotransmitter so many antidepressants target) is a chemical responsible for a sense of well-being. Serotonin levels increase after we eat carbohydrate and protein containing food (like cheese and crackers).

Oxytocin is a bonding hormone that is released when we are with loved ones (including pets!). It promotes feelings of contentment, decreases anxiety, and even promotes growth and healing. Oxytocin increases after eating, and some research suggests that it increases in particular when we eat a fat-containing meal or snack.

How can we capitalize on the mood effects of foods without going overboard or relying on these effects to cope with emotions? How shall we find the place between indulging our vices with wreckless abandon and strong-arming the urge? How about some preparation and mindfulness to help you find the middle ground?

First off, plan meals and snacks throughout your day so you don’t run on empty and leave your cravings to control you. Also, note how you’re feeling throughout the day and whether the food choices you’re making are affected by your mood. Take a moment to check in with your stress and energy level before you choose to eat. You may notice that the simple act of bringing more awareness to what mood you’re bringing to the table helps you make better choices.

And there’s nothing wrong with indulging in a sweet craving or a bread fix! Keep in mind that good nutrition isn’t perfect. However if emotional eating is a recurring event that is affecting your health, it may be important to re-evaluate how you deal with your stress.

The link between food, eating behaviors and mood is complex and by no means are we able to do the topic full justice in this short article. But hopefully you’ve gotten some insight into the connection, and how it can play a role in you and your family’s eating habits and health. For more information, check out the excellent work by The Center for Mindful Eating.

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Kat Brown MS RD RYT is a San Francisco Bay Area based Registered Dietitian and Yoga Teacher. As a nutrition counselor, writer, cook, and yogini she seeks to inspire others to nourish themselves and live balanced, fulfilled lives.