Like with every topic, there are two sides to this one. Firstly there are some very healthy foods that can boost your mood, but on the other hand, some very unhealthy foods can give you these good feelings too. The difference between the effect of the good foods versus the bad foods, is that the good feelings last when they come from the right foods!
It’s always good to end on a positive note, so lets go through the unhealthy foods first:
Both sugar and salt have been accused of triggering pleasure centres of the brain, which fuels an addiction to these nutrients. Sugar and all simple carbohydrates, actually tell the body to release serotonin, which boosts your mood.
Researchers Drewnowski and Levine in the Journal of Nutrition (March, 2003) found that high consumption of simple carbohydrates is often the result of habit and association. They found that this unhealthy habit can lead to “neurochemical changes” in the brain that basically enhance your cravings for these foods, almost like an addiction!
The same has been found for salt cravings in a 2009 study published in the Journal of Medical Hypotheses. It is thus all the more important to break these habits and association patterns by eliminating sugar wherever possible, and deciphering why you are craving salt.
Just a tip on the sugar front, if you find you are craving it after meals, this can be because of unbalanced blood sugar levels as a result of excess carbohydrates in the meal. Try to increase your healthy fat intake at meal times, and keep carbohydrate portions under control, to prevent blood sugar highs and lows. Like any addiction, initially going cold turkey can lead to withdrawal symptoms of headaches, sluggishness, bloating and a “hangry” temperament initially, but they will subside over time.
There are organic reasons for craving salty foods. Firstly, if you are a sportsman or woman, you should know to replenish your sodium intake during or at least after each bout of exercise. We lose salt in our sweat, and excess sweating will equal excess losses. Secondly, it has been suggested that mineral deficiency can cause salt cravings. If you have a lack of potassium, calcium and iron in the diet, you are more prone to craving salt!
Now to the GOOD FOODS:
Did you know that raw cacao is actually a mood booster! It triggers the same chemicals in the brain that are stimulated when we experience love (Valentines chocolates anyone?). It is also antioxidant rich, and a good source of nutrients such as zinc, calcium and iron. Now I’m not talking about Cadbury’s or Lindt here, unless you’re going for the 70% and above category. The darker the better! Cocoa powder and cacao are not the same, with cocoa powder being the processed form. Often, chocolates are loaded with sugar and other nasties that render the benefit of cacao negligible. Look for a raw cacao powder and you can actually make your own healthy chocolates using a delicious recipe (see here).
I’m not trying to trick you into eating your greens, but rather showing you that these nutrient-dense powerhouses actually can boost your mood!
Nuts are among the best sources of the mineral Magnesium (with almonds, cashews and peanuts containing the most per serving). Magnesium plays a large role in the development of serotonin, which is a major contributor to feelings of happiness. Due to its ability to help regulate emotions, it’s a common element in homeopathic remedies for balancing mood.
Nuts also contain the nutrient zinc. Studies have identified zinc as an important factor in decreasing depressive symptoms, as it can improve the response of antidepressants while reducing the side effects of anti-depression medication. A lack of zinc can trigger depressive behaviors, so load up on zinc-rich foods to balance your mood.
I am sure you know where I am going with this, whenever you hear fatty fish, think: “Omega 3”. Studies have shown a correlation between consumption of fish with high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids and a decreased risk of depression and suicide, Increasing your intake of omega 3 fatty acids may help combat depression. Other sources of omega 3 include flaxseeds and chia seeds. If you are not taking these in the diet, a pharmaceutical grade fish oil capsule can be taken daily to boost omega 3 intake.
Essentially the trend I am conveying here, is that a depressed mood can also be viewed as a nutrient deficiency, and it is important to cover your bases on the nutrient front first and foremost. There are countless images on Facebook insisting that you feel good when you eat clean, real food, and there is in fact some truth to that! Load up on the foods mentioned above to boost your mood (and productivity) today.