By now we’ve all probably heard that what we eat impacts how we think.
We even share a common shorthand for some of the more common food-induced mental states: food coma, sugar crash, caffeine buzz and fish frenzy (well maybe not this last one, but fried fish is reported to be the most-craved food in Wisconsin according to Foursquare). And with the holidays on the horizon promising their potent combination of delicious food and the potentially stressful mix of shopping, parties and events, having a plan for staying calm, centered and nourished makes a lot of sense.
Teasing aside, while most of us have ridden the 10 a.m. slide into crankiness after a sugary breakfast, we’re less educated about the ways that what we choose to eat can actually help us crawl out of our crabbiness and improve our mood and our attention span.
In addition to substances found in food that have a pharmacological effect, like caffeine, the fuel-providing components of food — protein, fat and carbohydrates — work on mood largely through promoting or inhibiting specific chemicals that carry information throughout our brains and bodies. These chemicals fall into two broad categories, either stimulating (excitatory) or calming (inhibitory). Depending on their category, they cause shifts in heart rate, blood pressure, encourage or discourage sleep and/or mental focus.
One brain chemical is serotonin, which is responsible for keeping our mood calm and stable. Carbohydrates stimulate serotonin in the short-term, explaining our craving for sugary and starchy (comfort) foods in times of stress. Unfortunately, if the carbohydrates we eat are overly sugary or processed, lacking fiber or other nutrients like fat or protein which slow digestion, the rise in serotonin is quickly followed by a steep decline in mood (classic sugar crash).
Protein, on the other hand can block serotonin production and create a sense of alertness and focus by promoting the production of dopamine and norepinephrine, two excitatory neurotransmitters. Fiber and fats promote satiety, which in turn promotes a sense of calm. And for those who like a thrill, chocolate and chili peppers pack an endorphin punch that promotes feelings of euphoria.
So, while this may seem like a lot of info, it’s pretty easy to put into action.
Nutrition tips for maintaining an even mood
» Avoid becoming either too full or too hungry. Stop eating when you’re 80 percent full and don’t wait until you are 100 percent famished to eat again.
» The best snacks contain a balance of complex carbohydrates (which have fiber to slow digestion), healthy fats and protein. Try an apple with nut butter, a small wedge of cheese and pear slices or a few stalks of celery dipped in hummus.
» Before an exam or important meeting, emphasize protein. The perfect meal to eat before a mentally challenging event would include protein, healthy fats and whole grains: think an open-faced turkey burger with avocado, tomato and grilled sweet onion (whole grain roll, of course). A square of 70 percent cocoa chocolate for dessert can add to alertness.
» Stressed at bedtime? Try 8 ounces of whole milk, warmed and sweetened with a small amount (½ teaspoon) of honey. Milk is high in tryptophan, an amino acid that stimulates serotonin production and the small amount of sugar will stimulate quicker absorption of tryptophan into the blood and brain. A bit of cinnamon helps mediate the effects on blood sugar. Almond milk is a good stand-in if you’re dairy-free as almonds do contain healthy amounts of tryptophan.
Beth Heller is the community initiatives lead for Live54218. Share your thoughts, questions and topic suggestions by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.