Feeling a little blue or stuck in a rut? Don’t reach for the bag of chips or soda. Instead, fill up on mood-boosting foods that will replenish you and help you feel better. Practicing mindful eating will help you avoid mindlessly snacking on unhealthy foods.
There’s a ton of mystery surrounding what types of foods we should be putting into our system every day. To help demystify the process of eating healthy on the regular, we sat down with Mandy Murphy Carroll, MPH, RD, a Registered Dietitian at Stanford University, who spends her days consulting people on how to live their healthiest lives to learn more about how food actually affects your mood. She draws from her experience as a researcher at Stanford University, and she sees Americans’ current eating patterns as the main contributor to why we tend to reach for convenient eating options rather than healthier options.
Carroll stresses that no one food is a silver bullet for a better mood. Eating should be a ritual: One that incorporates whole, balanced meals and quality time with friends and loved ones. Read her interview for more tips on how to cultivate a mindful eating practice and dedicate specific periods of time for shopping and cooking healthy snacks and meals for the week.
- Q: How have our eating patterns shifted over time?
- Q: How is eating connected to mood?
- Q: How does healthy eating affect your mood?
- Q: How does unhealthy eating affect your mood?
- Q: What are the top mood-boosting foods?
- Q: What foods would you recommend to improve energy?
- Q: Advice from an R.D. on how to incorporate these foods into your daily diet?
- Q: Tips for healthy eating?
Q&A With Mandy Murphy Caroll, MPH, RD
Q: How have our eating patterns shifted over time?
A: “Like many other areas of life in America, our eating habits have also drastically changed over time. Our grandparents and great-grandparents would not recognize certain items available in our grocery stores today. There is a lot more choice involved in today’s food ecosystem – where to buy your food when to eat, what to eat, where to eat.
Where we buy food. In 2019, we can choose to buy food from a wide range of places ranging from farmer’s markets or bulk bins at the grocery store to ordering food on your phone through a delivery app that is directly delivered to wherever you might be. We have a lot of options! In a typical urban environment, food can be purchased in multiple locations on any given block. This is a big shift from how we used to consume food several decades ago. The main place we used to consume food was at home with food purchased from a local grocer or grown at home or from a local farmer.
When we eat. Compared to a few generations ago, we have also drastically changed when we eat. Before, societies used to be more regimented about having three square meals a day at predetermined times. A common pattern now is to skip breakfast, subsist on coffee, snack throughout the day when hunger strikes, and eat a late dinner after a long day at work.
What we eat. We have far more options about what is available for us to eat. We used to only have available what was locally grown or raised, and only ate it when it was seasonally available. Nowadays, we can find things from near and far in just about any grocery store. This has some benefits, as it has exposed us to many new tastes and foods to expand our palettes and cooking repertoire. But, sometimes this can lead to having too many options and feeling overwhelmed at where to start in a typical grocery store.
Where and how we eat. In modern times, we eat in our cars, while we are walking, in front of our computers, at our desks. Before, mealtime was a designated time to eat at a table with others. It was a planned pause in the day to eat and connect. Now eating is often a solitary activity on the go. We often are not paying attention to what we are eating and how we feel at the time.”
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Q: How is eating connected to mood?
A: “Eating is connected to the mood in seemingly endless ways. Where, when, what, and why we eat affects our mood.
Where we eat & how it affects mood. If we eat in front of our laptops while trying to accomplish a task at work, or simply distractedly eating in front of a screen can affect our mood very differently compared to enjoying a meal with a friend and really being present with the food and the whole experience around eating.
When we eat & how it affects mood. It is a good idea to tune into your body’s natural rhythms about food and try to maintain a schedule. In general, by eating within a few hours of waking, this helps start our metabolism and raise our blood sugar levels. If we skip an early meal, or any meal in general and reach the point of extreme hunger, two things tend to happen: We reach for foods that we most crave and will give us quick energy (foods high in sugar or fat), and eat beyond satisfaction because we are so hungry.
What we eat & how it affects mood. When thinking about our mood or general physiological health, it is a good idea to focus on real, whole foods that have a bit of all the macronutrients that help with satiety. That means to try to have a bit of healthy fat, protein, and slow-digesting carbohydrate or fibrous food with every meal or snack. We all may need different ratios of these macronutrients to feel more sated, i.e., someone may feel more satisfied eating a meal heavier in healthy fats while another person may feel more satisfied eating a meal that has more fiber. These macronutrients digest at different rates and are utilized in the body for different functions, so eating a mix of these at every eating occasion can lead to feeling full longer and feeling more satisfied in general.
Why we eat & how food affects your mood. If we are eating in response to stress or other emotional reaction (whether it be positive or negative), we may not only choose food that we normally do not consume, but also may eat more of it, and digest it differently.”
Q: How does eating healthy affect your mood?
A: “Eating healthy affects your mood both by the nutrients contained within and the psychological impact of having made a “good” eating decision. When we eat something that we perceive as nourishing, that alone can make us feel better and more positive.
Also, now we are beginning to understand a lot more about the gut-brain connection (Gut-Brain Axis or GBA). We now know that the foods we eat directly impact the bacteria in our gut, which have a direct relationship to neurotransmitters that affect our cognitive and emotional centers in the brain. In other words, when we eat foods that nourish our gut bacteria this can increase important neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine that control and impact our well-being. So, what we eat is actually crucial to understanding how we feel.
Although food is critical in determining how we feel mentally and emotionally, so are many other factors in our lives, including the quality and length of our sleep, time spent with friends and loved ones, movement and exercise, time spent outside, among other things. Thus, eating better food alone may not be enough to boost one’s mood if one of the other areas in one’s life is in great deficit.”
Q: How does eating unhealthy affect your mood?
A: “By eating unbalanced meals with heavily processed foods (high sugar, unhealthy fats, etc.), we may in fact temporarily feel better from the increase in blood sugar and the unbridled joy that comes with indulging in a donut, for example. But, usually, soon after an unbalanced meal, we will experience a crash or energy low when our blood sugar levels drop. Eating in a balanced way with whole, real foods helps to nourish our cells, bodies, and guts and tends to sustain us for longer periods of time.”
Q: What are the best mood-boosting foods?
A: “Let me preface this by saying that these foods are in no particular order, nor is there a specific number of foods that will improve mood and energy. Also, I’d like to state that in general the mood-boosting foods is somewhat subjective, as is nutrition in general. One can find in the literature that both ketogenic eating plans (ones very high in animal fats with little protein and almost no carbohydrates) and vegan eating plans (ones completing devoid of any animal products) can be found linked to positive health outcomes, or even more grandiose health claims.
What is important to understand is that studying nutrition and making any definitive or causal findings on foods and health is almost impossible. Even if we gave the same exact foods and drinks to a group of research subjects, we would observe wildly different outcomes since there are so many other factors involved in being human: the makeup of our microbiota, the stressors we experience, the different environmental exposures we have (smoke, pollution, etc.), how we move our bodies, how much we sleep.
All this being said, it is good to understand that there is likely not one way of eating that suits all humans. Instead, it is best to understand and listen to one’s own reactions to foods and how we feel to determine the foods that make us feel good.
In general, it is a good bet that anyone will thrive on eating some combination of whole, real, unprocessed foods, including plants (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and whole unprocessed grains) as well as animals (meat, eggs, dairy products) that works for them on an individual basis.
Finally, since we know more about the gut-brain connection as aforementioned, it is especially important to nourish our gut in order to nourish our brain. Eating a mix of prebiotic foods (cooked potatoes and other root vegetables, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, etc.) and probiotic-rich or fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, other lacto-fermented vegetables or true “pickles”, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, tofu, tempeh, miso, etc.) are a good way to nourish our gut, which will likely boost our mood.
In no specific order, here are some specific foods that can help support mental and physical health:
The protein in an egg will increase your dopamine, a crucial neurotransmitter for your sense of pleasure. Additionally, the cholesterol in the yolk helps maintain a healthy brain by maintaining the insulating materials around your synapses.
This fermented food powerhouse contains probiotic bacteria that help to modify the makeup of your personal gut microbiome.
3. Potatoes (cooked and cooled)
Baking or boiling potatoes and then cooling it transforms the starch into a prebiotic fiber called resistant starch. This resistant starch has the benefit of feeding the bacteria in your upper intestinal tract that then produces fatty acids as a byproduct. This means your blood sugar response is less severe than plain starch, and you have an immediately available fuel source in the fatty acids.
4. Dark chocolate (85% or more)
This is a powerhouse for mood. It contains theobromine and caffeine in small amounts – both mild stimulants that can positively affect mood. Further, the antioxidants contained in chocolate are viewed as an anti-inflammatory which can be viewed as good for both brain and body health. If your body aches, your mood can suffer severely, so keeping inflammation at bay is critical.
This food is high in critical vitamins A and B12 necessary for brain health. The liver is one of the most nutritionally dense animal products, meaning it offers a very concentrated amount of nutrients in a small amount of food. Also, since it is a less popular type of meat, it is usually a more affordable source of animal nutrition. Since the liver is a potent source of Vitamin A, one must be cautious of the amount and frequency it is consumed if trying to conceive or if pregnant.
6. Salmon (or most any other coldwater fish like trout)
Salmon contains a host of beneficial nutrients like protein and omega-3 fatty acids. It also contains selenium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 which are all crucial for brain health.
Any vegetable that you enjoy is likely to boost your mood as it will offer a variety of natural vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and prebiotics to fuel your cells and gut.
The caffeine boost can certainly physiologically boost your mood in the short-term and long-term. Some studies of caffeine and depression have shown a positive correlation between coffee and lower rates of depression. Coffee can especially boost one’s mood when enjoyed in a social setting or coffee bar.
9. Beans & lentils
These rich in fiber and a suite of B vitamins, beans and lentils help to nourish your heart and gut.”
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Q: What foods do you recommend to improve energy?
A: “The combination I mentioned before of eating some amount of healthy fat, fibrous foods, and protein from whole, real foods at every meal and snack can help boost our energy by giving our brain and cells a mix of what they need at every eating occasion to function properly.
Also, as I have mentioned above, it is wise to consider other aspects of our life aside from food that may be affecting our energy, such as sleep, stress, and other environmental exposures. If one or all of these are out of balance, the foods we eat may not matter much as far as being able to improve our energy.
Finally, it is important to pay attention to when you eat. If you are hungry, try to eat sooner rather than later, so that you do not become ravenous and succumb to whatever is available in your immediate surroundings.”
Q: Any advice from a Registered Dietitian on how to incorporate these foods into your daily diet?
A: “The thing that has single-handedly helped me to eat better is being in a routine about when I shop for food and to make time to bulk cook or cook in large batches. Every Thursday night, I do 90% of my food shopping at our local farmer’s market after work. This has turned into a family and community event with my son and husband. We know a lot of our farmers and always run into friends and neighbors. It’s a highlight of any week. By having this dedicated time to shop every week, I know we will have plenty of fresh vegetables, some fruits, meats, eggs, and cheese to eat for the week.
Every Sunday during my son’s nap time, my husband and I do a two-hour chunk of bulk cooking. We aim to prepare all of our breakfasts and lunches for the week during this time. Bulk cooking allows us to ensure we will be eating nourishing meals for breakfast and lunch from whole, real foods without putting in a ton of time. By condensing this process, we not only save time, but we also save the number of dishes we produce. Then, we usually aim to cook big dinners on Mondays and Wednesdays that will also feed us the following night.
So, in short, a bit of planning, routine, and bulk cooking have helped me incorporate these habits into my own life.”
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3 Tips For Healthy Eating
“Some other things I’d like to address are:
- Practice mindful eating. To try to enjoy at least one meal a day mindfully, meaning that you are fully present (no TV, computer, etc.) when you eat your meal. Take a few deep breaths before starting, and enjoy the different aspects of the food: how it looks, smells, and tastes. You will be surprised by all you notice.
- Try to enjoy at least one or more meals in a social setting once a week. One of my favorite ways of spending time with friends is over a home-cooked meal. Eating with other people is how we have consumed food for generations. There is something intangibly important about sharing a home-cooked meal with loved ones.
- Pay attention to why you are eating. Are you eating in response to emotions (e.g., you just read a stressful e-mail or uncomfortable text message)? Are you eating out of habit (e.g., you always eat popcorn while watching TV)? Pay attention to why you are eating. Ask yourself: Am I hungry? Try to take a breath before eating, and check-in with yourself throughout the meal about your satiety. Often times, we are not paying attention, and simply eat in response to our environmental cues, or stop eating when whatever container we were eating from is empty.”
- Don’t forget about micronutrients. Micronutrients consist of vitamins and minerals and are needed in small quantities for optimal health. Certain vitamins and minerals, like B Vitamins, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, L-theanine, folate, and omega-3s, for example, are shown to improve your mood and fight depression. These types of vitamins and minerals can be found in a variety of fruits and vegetables. The only problem is that oftentimes, we aren’t eating enough fruits and veggies, to begin with! Taking a daily green juice and red juice supplement, like SkinnyFit Skinny Greens and Beauty Juice, will provide your body with 70 powerful superfoods, vitamins, and minerals that boost your mood and immunity without having to alter your diet. Simply mix one scoop of each superfood powder with water! To learn more about the incredible health benefits of taking greens and reds powders, click here.
The Bottom Line On Mood-Boosting Foods
In conclusion, eating healthy can be a total social activity in and of itself. Change your relationship with food and you’ll open up new doors you never knew existed. What if you hosted a dinner party with friends every month? What if you started shopping at your local farmer’s market and support local farmers and businesses? What if you started doing a meal prep so you had 7 days worth of healthy meals and snacks planned? Think about how different your life would feel for a minute.
It’s possible to make these changes. You just need to commit to making the change. How exciting is it to think of forging a new relationship with food that will deeply benefit your own life as well as those around you? Even a small step, like including more mood-boosting foods into your diet, is a step in the right direction.
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