What I am about to say should come as no surprise to most people: what we eat affects our emotions, as well as our bodies. Yet, many of us go through our days consuming things with a considerable degree of automaticity. Who among us has not eating lunch while multitasking at work, driving to a meeting, or watching TV? We have eaten but barely experienced it. Yet, food affects our mental and emotional functioning whether or not we pay attention to it.
So good… And yet, so bad…
Remember the last time you had that afternoon jumbo mocha-caramel-whipped-cream-topped-something-or-other? I’ve heard people equate the experience with feeling loved – for about $5 or 6 dollars. Not a bad deal, right? Until about an hour or so later, when the glow has faded, and one is left feeling tired, foggy, perhaps even hungry again, and cranky. From personal experience, I have learned that the absolute worst time for me to take care of any particularly unpleasant task (such as waiting in line at the DMV, or calling the phone company to address a problem with my bill – only to be put on hold for a half-hour in the process) is after the warm-and-fuzzy “that was so bad but so sweet and delicious!” feeling has worn off. Other foods associated with increased fatigue or mood fluctuations are the super-refined, calorie dense and nutrient poor options such as fast food burgers, fries, and the like. Over-consuming caffeine can be similarly problematic once the initial alive-awake-alert-enthusiastic! high has faded. Of course, it is fine to choose those items sometimes, but they should be the dietary exceptions rather than the rule if one is concerned about feeling better rather than worse.
Well…What Should We Eat?
Research over the past several years has confirmed not only what foods and beverages we should limit, but also what to eat more of if we want to feel good. Foods touted as having positive effects on physical and mental heath include those containing healthy fats (think fish, olive oil, avocado, walnuts), as well as adequate fiber and micronutrients (fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains). It should go without saying that eating the right amount of food is also important, as overeating can lead to sluggishness (both mental and physical), and undereating is associated with a host of other problems, including being both preoccupied with food and considered a generally un-fun dining companion.
The 10-Day Experiment
A recent study by McMillan and colleagues examined whether switching to a Mediterranean diet would result in improved mood and cognitive performance – even after only 10 days. Although eating in this way is associated with reduced risk of cancer and heart disease, it was not known whether it could also impact emotional health. Participants in the experimental (Mediterranean diet) group were required to increase their intake of fruits, vegetables, fatty fish, nuts and seeds, lowfat dairy products and whole grains. They were also required to exclude red meat, refined sugars, refined flour, pre-packaged and processed foods, caffeinated products, soft drinks and condiments. It is important to note that calorie intake was not restricted.
What the team found was that at the end of the 10 days, those on the Mediterranean diet had significant improvements in self-reported vigor, alertness, and feelings of contentment as compared to those who continued to consume their normal diets. In addition, those in the Mediterranean group had faster reaction times on a task assessing spatial working memory. The research team hypothesized that the mood benefits they observed were due to increased intake of the much-touted Omega-3 fatty acids and magnesium–both of which have been associated with improved mood in other studies. Given the short duration of the trial, it is unclear to what extent other benefits may have occurred after a longer period of time on the diet. Regardless, the results are intriguing, worthy of further study, and suggest that adopting a healthy (and delicious) way of eating can enhance mind and body well being.
McMillan, L., Owen, L., Kras, M. & Scholey, A. (2010). Behavioural effects of a 10-day Mediterranean diet. Results from a pilot study evaluating mood and cognitive performance . Appetite, 56(1), 143-147.
To access the full text of this article, go to http://dx.doi.org/ and enter the following: doi:10.1016/j.appet.2010.11.149
© Copyright 2011 by Traci Stein. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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