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Ashley PoynterMay 124 min read

Understanding the food/mood connection

Updated: Jun 25

Stress eating is a real thing. Several animal-based studies have shown that distress can lead to a higher intake of food that has a lot of fat and sugar. These cravings are often triggered by cortisol levels and high insulin levels. Some studies also point to ghrelin (aka the “hunger hormone”) as a culprit.

These high-fat high-sugar foods can lessen stress-related responses, which is why they are aptly named “comfort foods.” We feel better when we eat them, which can cause us to crave them when we are feeling stressed. It’s a vicious cycle. If you’ve ever found yourself eating ice cream over the sink after a particularly stressful day, you get it.

While stress eating is the real deal, the connection between food and mental health/mood disorders is less distinct. The burning question is whether or not the foods you eat can actually influence your risk for certain things like depression or anxiety. Alternatively, can food improve mental health?

According to many scientists, research around dietary factors and mood disorders like depression is still inconclusive. That said, there have been indicators that food may be linked to depression. It’s complicated because the factors surrounding depression are numerous and complex. Sussing out just one of the factors — like diet — can be tricky.

One 2014 study looked at the connection between depression and sugar-sweetened soft drinks, red meat, and refined grains. The study did find an association between these things. Another 2018 analysis noted that eating a lot of meat may be a risk factor for developing depression.

The key thing to note is that many of the factors for depression do not act independently. In other words, risk may be linked to several complex interactions between genetics and the environment. Even so, focusing on healthy eating can be a positive way to boost mental health. Evidence does exist that points to a lower risk of depression as the result of following a Mediterranean-style diet.

The other benefits of focusing on a healthy diet include lower blood pressure, lower risk for diabetes, lower incidence of cardiovascular events, and better cognitive function.

Fueling for success

Even if there is no hard and fast evidence that points to a poor diet as a risk factor, you can probably recognize how eating patterns affect your mood. Between blood sugar fluctuations and lack of nutrients, a bad diet means you aren’t functioning as well as you could be. Food is fuel for both body and mind; when that fuel is deprived, there are consequences for both mental and physical health:

  • High intake of refined carbohydrates (aka binging on processed carbs). This can trigger rapid rises and drops in blood sugars, which causes irritability and low energy.
  • Cutting out food groups (aka no-carb diets and the like). Your body requires nutrients from a variety of foods; reducing or outright eliminating an entire food group can restrict the nutrients you need and lead to low levels of iron, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and more. All of this can lead to low energy and worsening mood.
  • Not eating/skipping meals. When you miss a meal, your blood sugar drops, which can leave you fatigued.

None of these are positive eating patterns. Instead, focus on eating a well-balanced diet. Some tips to get the most from the food you eat:

  • Hydrate! Drink plenty of water throughout the day
  • Schedule time to eat regularly throughout the day
  • Focus on a good variety of fruits, vegetables, protein, and whole grains over refined sugars and processed carbohydrates
  • Work omega-3 rich foods into your diet
  • Set aside time to exercise

Another great way to ensure you’re fueling for success? Check-in with your doctor! Your primary care physician has the benefit of knowing your medical history as well as any allergies or food sensitivities. Your doctor can point you towards the right types of foods to eat for your unique needs.

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