French politician and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was on to something when he wrote in 1826, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” The foods we consume have a significant impact on not just our physical state but our emotional state as well.
Understanding this connection between the foods we eat and our moods is important year-round, but especially so during a holiday season rife with over indulgence.
Weighing in on this timely topic is nutrition guru John Berardi, who was recently interviewed on how food impacts mood and behavior and how a few simple changes in behavior can pave the way for a healthier, happier you. Read on for an excerpt from this interview.
How does what we eat relate to how we feel?
It was once thought that the only connection between one’s emotions and food was the tendency of some people to eat when they were depressed or under stress. But recent research has been painting an altogether different picture. We now have the understanding that the foods we eat can actually cause certain mood states. Food can impact our mood in three ways:
- Food helps the brain make mood-changing chemicals called neurotransmitters.
- Food impacts blood sugar levels, which impacts perception of alertness/energy.
- Food is connected with past feelings/experiences.
For example, say you’re feeling tired and it’s mid afternoon. In that case, a high protein snack is perfect. Protein contains an amino acid known as tyrosine, and tyrosine stimulates the release of dopamine and epinephrine. This gives us energy and alertness – with no caffeine required.
But we have to be careful not to eat too many carbohydrates with this protein meal. You see, complex carbs increase the release of serotonin, another neurotransmitter that puts you to sleep.
I should also note serotonin alleviates depression, calms the nerves, reduces appetite and helps reduce physical pain. So a meal high in complex carbs isn’t great when you need to stay awake. But when you’re feeling sad or stressed, complex carbs do wonders.
Now let’s talk about sugar. When you choose a snack high in sugar, initially you feel an increase of energy as blood sugar levels rise. Quickly, however, blood sugar drops because insulin has surged and is clearing out the blood glucose. So you end up feeling as tired, if not more so, than when you started.
That’s another reason protein is a good pick-me-up. It balances blood sugar levels so you don’t get the fluctuations that can cause you to feel energetic one minute and tired the next.
Finally, let’s say you’re starting a new exercise program and are looking for motivation. Omega 3 rich fish oils can be a real asset here as they impact the dopamine and serotonin systems in the brain, leading to a lower incidence of depression as well as increased motivation.
Although it’s clear food can impact mood, could it even impact our behavior?
The presence or absence of certain nutrients can certainly make us more prone to certain actions. Ask a physique competitor whether they’re nicer OR meaner to their friends and family when dieting for a competition. Nine times out of 10, they’re meaner because of the food-related neurotransmitter changes in their brain.
I remember reading a study that showed that the dopamine system in physique competitors eating a chronic low carb diet matched that of imprisoned violent offenders. And since we don’t see lots of physique competitors on death row, this is a good illustration that, while food can impact our mood, it doesn’t have to impact our behavior.
Interestingly, though, there have been a number of studies in the UK, US and Canada showing that giving one multi-vitamin tablet and one omega 3 rich fish oil tablet per day to prison inmates reduced the incidence of violent behavior by 50%. But this doesn’t just work in prison inmates. The same studies were repeated in primary schools and a similar decrease – about 50% – in playground violence was seen with just a multi-vitamin and fish oil tablet each day.
What are one or two habits that can help people improve their nutrition?
The real key here is to accept the fact that you can only change one habit or behavior at a time. Try to change more than one thing at a time, and you will fail. It’s really that simple.
Start out simple: again, take fish oil and a multi-vitamin every day. This habit is easy to do and it produces some pretty important physiological changes. Other habits to include (one at a time) are:
- Eating lean protein with every meal and snack
- Saving carb-dense meals until after exercise
- Eating five to seven servings of fruits and veggies
- Eating breakfast every day
- Drinking at least two liters of water per day
You’ll notice none of this is really “fancy.” But that’s the point. People don’t need fancy. They need one honest-to-goodness habit to follow every two weeks or so. And once they’ve mastered that habit, they need a new one. These habits will add up until the person has slowly transitioned their eating from where it was before to a much better place, a place of enhanced physical and mental function.
Dr. John Berardi is recognized as one of the top exercise nutrition experts in the world. His work has been published in numerous textbooks, peer-reviewed journals and in countless popular exercise and nutrition books and magazines. Through his company Precision Nutrition, Dr. Berardi has worked with over 50,000 clients in over 100 countries. These clients span the spectrum from recreational exercisers all the way up to the athletic elite, including: The Cleveland Browns, The Toronto Maple Leafs, The Texas Longhorns, Canada’s Olympic Ski Teams, Canada’s Olympic Bobsleigh and Skeleton Racers, World Champion UFC Fighters, Canada’s Olympic Speed Skaters and more.