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Food to Balance Your Mood

Some moods trigger food cravings -- and vice versa. The challenge is to keep both in check.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Think of your body as an insanely complex, gooey car. Put in gas and oil (a balanced diet), and you're good to go. Put in nicotine; alcohol; caffeine; weird, manufactured fats; gummy, washed-out flour; and sugar, and it's like pouring sugar into the gas tank. You'll sputter, run on, stop and start, or stall.

Put Food In, See a Difference

Senior New York University clinical nutritionist Samantha Heller, MS, RD, would probably prefer an analogy to a chemistry set. "If you are chemically balanced," Heller contends, "your moods will be balanced."

A lot of factors can throw the body out of balance. "A lot of women are anemic," she says. "This leads to depression and fatigue. Older people are often deficient in the B vitamins. People who don't eat regularly often have big shifts in blood sugar." People also have chemical sensitivities to certain foods that can govern mood.

In a study of 200 people done in England for the mental health group known as Mind, participants were told to cut down on mood "stressors" they ate, while increasing the amount of mood "supporters." Stressors included sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and chocolate (more of that coming up). Supporters were water, vegetables, fruit, and oil-rich fish.

Eighty-eight percent of the people who tried this reported improved mental health. Specifically, 26% said they had fewer mood swings, 26% had fewer panic attacks and anxiety, and 24% said they experienced less depression.

Next: How Foods Manage Your Moods

How Moods Are Fed or Starved

One big set of chemicals that control mood are the neurotransmitters in the brain led by the pleasure "drug" serotonin. These substances determine whether you feel good and energetic or tired, irritable, and spacey. They run on sugar, preferably the form that comes from low glycemic carbohydrates (not doughnut sprinkles), according to Molly Kimball, RD, sports and lifestyle nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation and Hospital in New Orleans.

The idea, she says, is to maintain a stable blood sugar level through the day, slowly feeding these substances into the brain. Low glycemic carbs include whole grain bread, beans, whole grain crackers, soy, apples, pears, peaches, and other fruits.

What Kimball calls "crappy carbs" -- commercial granola bars, animal crackers, graham crackers, potato chips, and of course, cakes and pies -- flood into the system too fast and cause your body to order up a big shot of insulin, which then tips the balance you've tried to maintain. "You can see it when you've had a white flour pancake and syrup for breakfast," Kimball says. "By mid-afternoon, you're ready for a nap." This sugar alert/insulin cycle can gradually become less efficient and lead to diabetes and other problems.

Comfort Foods Really Work

If you have let your neurotransmitters get off balance or if external forces have conspired to put you in a bad mood, don't fret, it happens. That's when your body will start to think "comfort food."

According to Joy Short, MS, RD, assistant professor and head of undergraduate nutrition and dietetics at St. Louis University, you should fulfill that craving -- but in moderation. "You might take time to think, 'Am I really hungry or just feel like eating because I am stressed,'" she says. However, if you can't think of a healthier response, eat your comfort item and enjoy it! If you must eat a deep-fried Twinkie, eat one and lighten up on (but don't skip) the rest of the meals in the day, she says.

You could make comfort foods more nutritional, she says. Interestingly, both men and women choose ice cream as their preferred comfort food, but coming in second is chocolate for women and pizza for men. "If you want a cookie, make it oatmeal raisin or vanilla wafers. Buy low-fat ice cream. Make your hot chocolate with skim milk. And forget the chips, in favor of popcorn or pretzels," Short says. Or after Domino's arrives, throw some artichoke pieces, anchovies, or frozen veggies on top and heat.

What about that universal comfort food, chocolate? Much has been written about chocolate's rich complement of mood-altering chemicals, some of which trip the serotonin receptors and cause a "falling in love" feeling, according to millions of chocoholics.

Chocolate is also supposedly loaded with antioxidants that keep the brain and other organs from being bashed by rogue cells called free radicals. Kimball says chocolate can act almost as a cannabinoid -- the mood-altering chemical found in marijuana. But Heller and Short say the touchy-feely chemicals are not in sufficient strength to make a difference in the body.

Next: Tips for Managing Your Moods

Recommendations for Managing Moods