Choose your mood by choosing your food.

Written by Cyndi O'Meara

Cyndi is about educating. Her greatest love is to teach, both in the public arena and within the large corporate food companies, to enable everyone to make better choices so they too can enjoy greater health throughout their lives. Considered one of the world's foremost experts in Nutrition, Cyndi brings over 40 years experience, research and knowledge.

April 18, 2023

The food we choose to eat can have a significant impact on our mood and overall well-being. Consuming nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, can help boost our energy levels and promote feelings of happiness and contentment. On the other hand, consuming highly processed and sugary foods can lead to feelings of lethargy and irritability. By making conscious decisions about the foods we eat, we can choose to nourish our bodies and minds and cultivate a positive and uplifting mood.

Calming Carbohydrates

All carbohydrates are not equal in their ability to offer mood-altering results. The best way to consume carbohydrates is in the form of whole grains and complex carbohydrates. Oats, millet, cracked wheat, buckwheat and rice are prime examples. Whole grains are broken down over a long period of time, keeping a constant flow of serotonin in our brain. To experience the maximum effect of carbohydrates on your mood, it is important to eat them without any protein.

Peppy Proteins

If you’re feeling sluggish, protein power can produce the effect you want. Protein encourages the production of dopamine and noradrenaline which produce alertness, mental energy and quicker reaction time. The effects of eating protein last about two to three hours. To maximise the ‘arousal’ effect of a protein meal, limit the intake of fat and carbohydrates. If you are not a good sleeper it is important not to eat protein for several hours before bedtime or you may experience difficulty falling asleep.

Neutral Fruit and Vegetables

Most fruits and vegetables are mood-neutral foods, so you can consume them without affecting your mood. If you’re feeling the way you want to feel, a meal of fruit or a healthy salad might be the best option.

Sabotaging Fatty Foods

Fatty foods, especially manufactured fatty foods with refined oils and fats like margarine and canola oil, cause havoc with moods. An overburden of manufactured, refined fats means digestion overload, causing a large portion of blood flow to leave the brain and be shunted to the digestive tract to help with digestion and absorption, thus causing a condition I call ‘brain fag’. The brain simply stops working at peak efficiency and goes into slow mode, causing tiredness, forgetfulness, lack of concentration and all other mind-confusing, unwanted feelings. (By the way, a very large indulgent meal will also give the same symptoms.)

Antagonising Alcohol

Difficulty walking, blurred vision, slurred speech, slow reaction times, impaired memory, aggression, confusion, amorous, super mellow, – clearly, alcohol affects the brain and our moods. Alcoholism destroys the brain, but current research shows that moderate alcohol consumption increases blood flow to the brain, which seems to suggest a link with improved mental function. The results of the research show some specificity in the association between alcohol consumption and cognitive ability. Research at University College, London, has found that those who drink only one glass of wine a week have significantly sharper thought processes than teetotallers.

Exhilarating Caffeine

While caffeine is an addictive drug it can also be a very useful tool for changing moods and states of alertness. Scientists have developed various theories to explain caffeine’s wake-promoting and mind-altering power. It seems to interfere with the chemical adenosine, which is a natural sleeping pill made by the body. Caffeine has been shown to enhance mood and increase alertness; in moderate amounts it’s potent for athletes, students, brain-storming committees and the like. Used wisely, and not as an hourly pick-me-up, caffeine taken as tea or coffee can alter brain performance, making it a very useful tool.

Outstanding Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish like salmon and mackerel as well as many nuts, like walnuts, can help stave off depression. Recent research has revealed that omega-3 is excellent for improving concentration and energy levels.

Helpful Herbs

Herbs have been used for centuries, not only for flavour in cooking but as natural remedies too. Ginger can lift the spirit, cinnamon counteracts exhaustion, camomile helps with nervous tension, while peppermint can be taken to help calm nerves and relieve anger. Basil is thought to clarify the mind, so try a large batch of pesto stirred through some healthy pasta to give your mind clarity.

Vital Vitamins and Minerals

B-vitamins play an important role in brain function. B6 helps to convert tryptophan into serotonin, vitamin B1 helps build and maintain healthy brain cells, and folic acid is also an essential brain food. Zinc is a mineral that helps keep the senses sharp as well as encouraging a healthy immune system – it is critical for proper growth and development of the nervous system.

Stimulating Sunlight

The sun inhibits a hormone in the brain called melatonin. This hormone creates a calmness in the brain and gets the body and mind ready for sleep. It is a hormone that is needed at night so it is produced when the sun goes down; but during the day exposure to sunlight will help keep melatonin at bay and enhance the alert state of the brain, as well as help to get rid of the blues.

Overboard Overeating

Overeating also creates mood changes. For example, what do you want to do straight after Christmas dinner? The usual answer is, have a siesta. What has happened is that your digestive system is overloaded, so some of the blood from the brain, arms and legs is shunted to the digestive system to help in the process of delivering the food’s nutrients to the rest of the body. That’s why when you eat too much food you either want to sleep or you find it hard to get physically motivated. If you don’t digest the food within six hours or so then it begins to putrefy, releasing toxins into the blood and creating havoc with energy and mood.

You can use the principles of Food–Mood Connection in relation to sports performance. While peak performance of the physical body is important for athletes, many times the mind is the edge that makes the difference. Using the foods that cause alertness in the brain can make all the difference between winning and losing.

If you are someone who finds it hard to sleep at night, to help improve your sleep patterns it would be beneficial to have protein for lunch and carbohydrates for dinner. Stop drinking all caffeine drinks at midday, don’t eat any protein after lunch and make sure you sleep in a dark room. Just see what a difference it makes when your brain is calmed down.

If you want the upper hand at a business meeting, then eat smart. To keep your brain sharp and alert it is important to be aware of the Food–Mood Connection. Two basic rules are: eat very little fat and eat your protein first. So, a good business lunch would be a clear soup (hold the bread and butter), then fish (without sauce) and a salad and steamed vegetables (hold the alcohol). For dessert, have fruit salad – sorry, no cake or puddings. Watch what your lunch partner eats and see who has the upper hand by the end of the meal.

Sitting down and listening to a speaker, either at a conference, university lecture or school, can sometimes become tiring. Usually, during the morning sessions most people are alert and full of questions, but after lunch the yawns start and heads start to nod. The food that is offered at lunch is often starchy, full of breads, cheeses and other foods that cause drowsiness. My suggestion is that at morning tea, don’t touch the sweet pastries; just have a cup of coffee and some fruit if they are on offer. Then at lunch choose one type of meat and salad, with coffee and fruit again for afternoon tea. Using this strategy should make a difference by keeping you alert all day, allowing the brain to take in the information needed.

If you’re a shift worker, to allow yourself to work to the best of your ability it is important to manipulate the foods you eat to match when you want to sleep and when you want to be awake. Make sure that throughout your shift you eat foods to increase alertness, and then, when you are ready to sleep, eat foods that increase the brain-calming chemicals. It is also very important that you sleep in a dark room. The darker the room the more abundant melatonin is, to help you sleep and heal.

With this awareness of the Food–Mood Connection, you can use your food as a powerful tool to enhance performance in all areas of life. Parents can also use these principles to help children manage their busy lives.

From the time you wake up until approximately four hours before bed, try and consume some type of protein. For breakfast, include eggs or fish or consume a complementary protein, which includes a porridge with nuts, by cooking the porridge, with what ever grain, seeds and nuts you would like the night before, putting it into the fridge and then reheating it in the morning, it reduces a blood sugar spike by 50%. Avoid refined breakfast cereals and starchy breakfasts like toast and jam. Snacks for morning and afternoon tea should be nuts and yoghurt or a mix of vegetable sticks and nut butters or hummus and other protein dips rather than muffins, cakes or cookies. Lunch should also have some protein, like salmon, beef or chicken, with vegetables. Then at night you can have a pasta, rice and/or other high-carbohydrate meal with vegetables and salad.

Quality of Food

Not only do we need to think about the type of food to eat for managing moods, the quality of the food we eat is also very important. The brain is a pharmacy, manufacturing chemicals for every thought and every connection between the brain neurons. If you give the brain pharmacy the right ingredients then it will manufacture top class neurotransmitters and brain chemicals. Give the brain the wrong foods in the way of hydrogenated vegetable oils, intersterificatied fats, margarine, artificial sweeteners, additives, modified milks, preservatives, and the like then the quality of the brain chemicals is severely compromised. Depression has increased along with the increase in technology and manipulated foods we now eat. This correlation is one not to over look and to make sure the quality of the food youeat is from nature and not technology foods in order to make brain chemicals for correct brain function, thinking and moods.

Plan Your Day

It intrigues me that the typical western diet is carbohydrates for breakfast and lunch, and then protein for dinner and that most of the food eaten on a daily basis are modified by science and technology. If your moods and your sleeping patterns are not working for you, try changing and manipulating the foods you eat in order to change the brain neurotransmitters to those that best suit your needs.

The statisticians and health experts expect depression to be the most debilitating and most costly disease by the year 2020. It doesn’t need to be. Our knowledge of the brain and its neurotransmitters clearly shows us that food is an important part of making sure this amazing complexity of chemicals and neurons runs efficiently. If you want quality thinking and you don’t want to be a part of this destructive epidemic that affects many members of our society from teenagers to the elderly and every social strata, then re-read the section about which foods affect your mind and moods and choose accordingly. Make sure the quality of your thinking reflects the quality of your food … which affects the quality of your thinking which affects the quality of your mood which affects … By changing the quality of your thinking you then change the quality of your life.

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