We’ve all heard it a million times- avoid sugary food and drinks, don’t overeat, and eat your fruits and vegetables. You might say, “That’s all well and good, but HOW can I actually use nutrition and food to help regulate my moods more effectively?” “What can I actually eat?” We’re here to give you some tips and get you moving in the right direction. First, we’ll tell you a bit more about how food affects your mood and then we will give you some specific strategies to try.
Our gut, and therefore our brains and emotions, are often hijacked by our typical diet of processed foods and sugar. Eating these foods sends our bodies through a blood sugar rollercoaster, which often masquerades as common mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety. Here’s how this works. When we eat sugary or refined foods, our blood sugar is quickly elevated, which is followed by an increase in insulin levels. When our blood sugar drops, we often feel sadness, irritability, anxiety, fatigue, tension, and even agitation (Brogan, 2017). Our mood becomes out of control. This might leave you feeling like your emotions are frustrating you, refusing to cooperate, or even that they don’t make sense and seem to come out of nowhere. Let’s talk about some concrete yet surprising ways of how to better regulate this process so you can begin to experience more stable mood.
Eat More Fat.
Fats are often on the “do not eat” list for dieters and others looking to control their weight. Since the mid twentieth century, we’ve been told that fat makes us fat and is unhealthy. We now know that this is untrue. In fact, since Americans began eating “low fat” diets, the obesity epidemic has spiraled out of control. We need to rethink our beliefs about fat and how it can be used successfully to regulate our emotions.
Fat is a more stable energy source than sugar and processed foods and fats are a necessary ingredient and part of healthy brain and metabolic functioning. Fat functions as a more easily-accessed form of energy in the body and does not put our system through the same rollercoaster that the pesky sugary and processed foods do (Brogan, 2017). What type of fats might help you regulate your mood? Unmodified and natural fats. Start with incorporating eggs, olive oil, butter (the real kind, not margarine or vegetable oil spreads), and salmon or other cold-water fish (Axe, 2017). Continue incorporating healthy fats into your diet by eating grass-fed beef, olives, avocados, nuts (almonds, walnuts), seeds (flax seeds and chia seeds), and ghee (clarified butter). Your brain and mood will thank you.
Eat Your Sweets!
Surprisingly, even if you are watching your refined sugar intake in the interest of feeling less irritable or sad, there are other options out there if your sweet tooth won’t let up. Don’t fret. We have you covered.
Instead of reaching for a donut or Coke, turn instead to natural sweeteners which do not have the same negative impacts on mood that refined sugar can have. Natural sweeteners do NOT include artificial sweeteners such as aspartame that are found in diet soda or other “light” beverages, low-fat yogurt, and some salad dressings. Instead, natural sweeteners include things such as raw honey, stevia, maple syrup, and fruit or jam. These can be found at your local grocery store and are delicious! As you continue to become more mindful of your sugar intake, you may get more creative with how you want to incorporate natural sweeteners. Put a drop of honey in your tea or on toast, use a banana puree for baking or to add sweetness to a veggie smoothie, or add some maple syrup to your granola or oatmeal. You’re on your way to kicking that refined sugar craving and moving towards a more even mood.
Use Your Mindfulness Skills
If you are working towards or even considering using your diet to help you decrease feelings of sadness, irritability, tension, and anxiety, positive change may be on the way. It is likely that you will start to experience less intense shifts in your mood, less reactivity, and a sense of being more regulated and in control. To augment the changes we have already suggested making, let’s turn to our mindfulness skills and use them to our advantage.
When you are shopping at the grocery store, making new recipes, or eating a healthy meal, take a moment before you start each task to ground yourself in the present and remind yourself of your intention. While eating, turn off all distractions including the television and your computer and focus on your meal. While slowing down and fully participating in this experience, you may notice that you obtain more satisfaction from eating than you previously had. Flavors and textures may become more interesting. You may even realize that the refined sugar craving you experienced earlier is now long gone and instead, you’re going to reach for almonds or a piece of fruit. By integrating these mindful moments into your pattern of eating, you will be able to make better choices about what you eat and will have the time to consider how particular foods will impact your mood.
Whatever your current diet or food routine is, the good news is that by becoming more mindful and making small changes to your diet over time, you are able to impact your emotions long-term. Start by using one of the above strategies and take a moment each day to note any changes in the way you feel. Try walking down a new aisle at the grocery store and buying one new item from those listed here. It is within your power to experience improved mood and eating whole, nutritious food can help you get there.
Please seek help from a certified nutritionist if you would like more guidance and speak with your primary care physician prior to making dietary changes.