Eating to Feel Good

By: Jen McWaters, Psy.D. | February 3, 2017

Three times a day we get to choose what we want to eat to quiet our hunger. Science has progressed the ability to measure the impact of these choices on our bodies. Recently, research has uncovered fascinating links between diet and our moods.

Integrative treatments for mental health have gained traction, particularly in the newer field of nutritional psychiatry, an emerging area of practice and research that considers the impact of diet on mental health. How we feed our brains is an important part of the bigger holistic picture of how we achieve and sustain good mental health.

Important studies across the globe have focused on the importance of a “healthy” diet in achieving better brain and emotional health. What follows are some ideas about implementing these suggestions in small ways. Please consider your individual health needs in implementing them and consider consulting a nutritional professional to ensure you are getting your specific nutritional needs met. If you have struggled with undereating, overeating, or another eating disorder, consulting a nutritionist can guide you in making these changes in medically healthy and balanced ways. Nutrition is just one factor of many that contributes to our emotional resilience and well-being.

Not surprisingly, a diet high in processed foods such as pizza, soda, chips, and refined sugars has been linked to negative cognitive and mood outcomes including poor memory, poor concentration, and increased risk of depression or anxiety. One study showed that pregnant women who ate such processed foods were more likely to have children with behavioral and emotional issues such as aggression, inattention, and mood dysregulation including meltdowns and tantrums.[1] Other studies showed children, teens, and adults who consistently consumed such unhealthy diets tended to report more mood issues including higher levels of anxiety, sadness, and depression.

Why might this be? Researchers have found a connection between the nutrients we consume and our body’s ability to produce mood-boosting neurochemicals such as serotonin as well as an ability to fight off stress. In fact, about 95% of our body’s serotonin supply is produced in our digestive system! A healthy diet was also shown to protect against cognitive decline and dementia, such as Alzheimer’s.

Making food lifestyle changes can feel daunting. Here are some practical ways to begin experimenting with food to positively impact your body and mood:

  • Be aware of how you feel after eating certain foods. Become attuned to your body’s nutritional needs and identify foods that negatively impact your feelings. For example, do you feel fatigued or mentally foggy? Keep a food log to help track your body’s responses to certain foods.
  • Trade out some favorite processed foods with healthier options. For example, try baking rather than frying potatoes, eating dark rather than milk or white chocolate. Use oil and vinegar as salad dressing instead of a processed one.
  • Pay attention to foods that contain processed sugars and starches. Red flags are foods with long ingredients lists or difficult-to-pronounce ingredients on the label.
  • An effective way to cut down on processed sugar is to eliminate soda. Stay hydrated by drinking water or tea.
  • Having a piece of cake at a party is not necessarily detrimental. It is the cumulative effect of eating nutrient-deficient foods consistently that is detrimental. Ensure that the majority of your diet consists of foods providing your body with effective fuel.
  • Typically, snack foods are processed foods. A goal is to consume more whole foods — unprocessed foods that are in or close to their natural forms. Rather than eating chips or granola bars, consider snacking on nuts, fruits, or veggies. Try making homemade dips such as hummus or guacamole. They are easy to make.
  • Consider attending a cooking class or finding new healthy recipes to try at home. Getting connected with the process of preparing food by hand can encourage a new appreciation and interest in whole-food eating.

In summary, your body and brain do not have the building blocks needed to produce feel-good chemicals, process effectively, or fight off stress when you consume nutrient-deficient foods. So, what is the solution? Eating a whole-food nutrient-rich diet that emphasizes vegetables, leafy greens, nuts, fruits, unprocessed whole-grains, seafood, small amounts of lean meats and dairy provides your body and brain with the fuel it needs.

For more details and links to articles, check out: Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food


[1] Steenweg-de Graaff et. al. (2014). Maternal dietary patterns during pregnancy and child internalising and externalising problems. The Generation R Study. Clinical Nutrition, 33(1), 115-21.

Image: Craig Allen on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

Get our latest articles sent directly to your inbox!