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How Your Mood Affects What You Eat—And How Food Changes Mood

When you’re feeling down, do you reach for a sweet treat to get a boost? When stressed out or anxious, do you reach for creamy mac and cheese for comfort? Mood and food are closely linked, and we are all guilty of emotional eating at times. 

What science can tell us about how our moods inform our food choices is important. It can help us learn to make better choices, especially because research indicates that the opposite is also true: what you eat impacts your mood. 

How Your Mood Affects What You Eat, For Better and Worse

Everyone understands this. We’ve all reached for comfort food at some point to soothe stress or anxiety or had that feeling of reaching for a healthy treat, buoyed by a chipper mood. 

Each person is different in how they eat and react to feelings and moods, but there are some definite patterns. These are important to understand, because they can help you be more aware of how your emotions trigger food choices and allow you to make positive changes. 

In a Bad Mood We Reach for Sugar and Salt

It’s not surprising to hear that research supports this fundamental truth. When we feel bad—depressed, anxious, stressed—we tend to reach for foods that taste good and feel comforting. This means, energy-dense, sugary, fatty foods, often low in protein.

Everyone is susceptible to this effect for both biological and psychological reasons. Comfort foods are called that for a reason. They provide comfort, releasing certain neurotransmitters. For instance, sugar triggers dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter. 

The psychological element is related to habit. When we feel bad, we remember times in the past when eating something tasty made us feel better. Eating in response to emotions becomes a persistent bad habit. 

How Your Mood Affects What You Eat When You Feel Good

You may assume that when in a good mood, you eat better. This is often the case, but health researchers find that it’s not always true. One study confirmed the effect, showing that people in positive moods prefer healthy foods. 

The researchers found that when we’re in a good mood, we are more likely to think about long-term health goals, and so we reach for the healthful food. In a bad mood, you’re more interested in the instant gratification of an indulgent food and long-term goals are not at the forefront of your thoughts.

Other studies have shown that people sometimes consume greater amounts of food when in a good mood. This effect seems to occur mostly in people who tend to be emotional eaters. It didn’t matter whether they ate healthy or junk foods; they simply ate more.

How Food Impacts Mood

It’s important to be aware of how our feelings inform food choices, but the opposite is also true. What you eat can change your mood, and this information can also help you eat better. It turns out that the connection between food and mood is complicated and both biological and psychological. 

The Importance of Serotonin and the Gut

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates appetite but also sleep, mood, and pain. Most of the receptors for serotonin, up to 95%, are not in your brain. They’re in your gut. This means that what you eat matters when it comes to mood and more.

The digestive tract is lined with nerve cells, neurons. How they function and the serotonin released depends significantly on the gut bacteria residing there. And, what you eat impacts that microbiome. Food, therefore, has the potential to influence your mood. 

Blood Sugar Roller Coaster

Sugar is a major culprit for poor health generally, and it may also contribute to your bad mood. Studies show that when your blood sugar is variable, you are more likely to be in a bad mood or even to struggle with depression. People with diabetes are particularly vulnerable.

High-Quality Food Fuels the Brain

A diet that is consistently low-quality is to your brain and gut like putting regular fuel in a high-performance car. The worse you eat, the more poorly your brain functions and the worse your gut feels. The result? You’re more likely to feel bad. 

Learn more about processed foods to avoid and how you can build a healthier, clean diet. 

Foods That Build a Better Mood

To conquer the cycle of eating bad and feeling bad, try these foods and diets to support gut health, brain health, and positive moods: 

  • Fermented foods. Because so much of mood originates in the gut, keep it healthy with fermented foods rich in probiotics. Try sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, and kombucha. 
  • Vitamin D. Many people experience blue moods in the winter, and it’s often attributed to limited sun exposure. Sunlight provides vitamin D, so deficiency in this nutrient may play a role in depression. If the sun isn’t shining or you’re stuck inside, increase vitamin D-rich foods in your diet: oily fish, like salmon and tuna, eggs, mushrooms, and fortified dairy products. 
  • Traditional diets. Researchers have found that the best diets for mood are traditional. Consider the popular Mediterranean diet. It consists of fresh vegetables and fruit, olive oil, unprocessed grains, and fish with limited meat and dairy. Studies show that people with traditional diets have a much lower risk of depression than those with the typical western diet. (4)
  • Antidepressant nutrients. Another study ranked foods densest in nutrients that support a good mood. Check out the list which includes a lot of seafood and fresh vegetables, especially greens. (6)
  • Whole foods. By focusing on whole foods, you can avoid the sugar roller coaster. Whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins help keep blood sugar on an even keel. A diet focused on whole foods is also nutrient dense and high quality for optimal brain function and gut health. 

How to Fight the Urge to Eat Your Emotions

You know how mood and food interact. You know what you should eat. Still, eating in response to mood and emotions is a hard habit to break. Here are some things you can do to get out of the cycle of emotional eating and build healthier eating habits: 

Journal Your Feelings and Food

Awareness is so important to changing habits. If you don’t recognize a destructive pattern, how can you change it? Keep track of what you eat and how you feel before and after. Take at least a week to eat and react normally without trying to make changes. You’ll see a pattern emerge that will help you understand which emotions and triggers lead to poor food choices. 

Break the Habit with a New One

From your journal, you might notice that work stress triggers comfort food binges. After a hard day at work, you sit down in front of the TV and zone out on food. Pick a new comfort strategy to replace it, a walk for instance. With time, you’ll have a new, healthier habit that probably provides better stress relief. 

Stop and Think Before You Eat

Habits are automatic. You do them without thinking. Sometimes, simply stopping for a minute to think about what you’re about to do is enough to make a change. Before getting that box of crackers out of the cupboard, stop and ask if you’re really hungry or just in a bad mood. If you are hungry, consider other foods that would be satisfying. 

Think Long-Term, Not Short-Term

Eating a whole row of cookies when you’re in a bad mood is an example of short-term thinking. It will make you feel better in the moment, but you’re not considering the long-term effects. Before reaching for comfort food, think about how it will make you feel in ten minutes and how it will impact your health in the future. 

Food and mood are inextricably linked, but knowledge is power. The more you know about how they play off each other, the better healthy eating choices you can make. Share this information with clients and help them craft diets and food choices that support a better mood and health.