// The mood-food connection: how nutrition can affect a client’s state of mind

The foods we eat affect more than our energy levels and waistline, says dietitian Scott Josephson. By understanding the way food affects our mental state, we can help clients make smart nutrition choices.

Did you know that the foods you choose can potentially influence your behaviour and emotional well-being? Upon food consumption and breakdown, the brain releases chemicals (neurotransmitters) known as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Serotonin is a calming and relaxing chemical, whereas dopamine and norepinephrine are responsible for alertness, excitement, action and mental acuity. Neurotransmitters tell us when we are full and if food is too hot or doesn’t taste good. Some nutrients in foods are precursors to the neurotransmitters and decide how much of the neurotransmitter is produced. This, in turn, can affect how we think and feel.

Basic principles

Certain foods act like a physiological ‘switch’ due to the nutrients in the food. The combination of the protein, carbohydrate and fat (macronutrients) content and the vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) affect metabolism and mood. For example, your mood can be related to a deficit of nutrients. It might be as simple as an inadequately balanced diet, or it could be that one nutrient triggered a mood reaction. Foods such as fibre, oil-rich fish, fruits, vegetables and water can stimulate neurotransmitters and adjust the chemical balance in our brains to help us feel better. Several foods allow you to balance your emotional and mental health while providing the right fuel for performance. This mood-food connection is an intricate combination of complex physiological and psychological interactions.

Mind, body and food

Seratonin increases concentration and relaxation and helps prevent depression. The following nutrients and ingredients affect your serotonin levels and, in turn, your mood:
Carbs – increase serotonin levels
Fats – increase happiness
Proteins – increase alertness and energy
Caffeine – increase alertness; improve concentration and performance
Vitamin B6, Vitamin Z, Folic Acid, Zinc – increase serotonin levels
Chocolate – increase serotonin and endorphin levels

*Results are dependent on proper intake.

Can food alter your mood?

With all that modern science knows about the mood-food connection, you can select foods that will power your brain, modify your moods and perhaps make you more effective and motivated. Imagine choosing one type of food to alleviate anxiety, another to bolster brain power or yet another to curb your urge to splurge on a doughnut!

A new field of pioneering nutrition research, often referred to as the study of food and mood, is confirming what many of us have long suspected. What and when we eat can affect our mind and mood, the tendency to pile on pounds and even the quality of our lives. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) first linked food with mood when they found that sugar and starch in carbohydrate foods boosted the powerful brain chemical serotonin. Soon, they linked serotonin and other neurotransmitters (substances that pass information from cell to cell in the brain) to our every mood, emotion or craving. They noted that eating carbohydrate-rich foods elevated serotonin levels, which can help you feel more relaxed and calm.

Additional findings showed that high-protein foods released other substances that stimulate the production of dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine. Recent studies have shed additional light on issues surrounding carbohydrate intake, and shown that the sugar craving some women experience could be a response to oestrogen’s effect on brain chemicals and blood sugar levels.

Women may be more sensitive to changes in serotonin than men. Findings revealed when oestrogen levels fall and progesterone levels are high, serotonin levels may drop. This is potentially why women might crave carbohydrates during certain times of the menstrual cycle. When serotonin levels fall, appetite increases particularly for carbohydrates.

The same mechanism seems to occur during perimenopause, or the natural hormonal transition. When oestrogen levels decline, there’s often increased appetite, carbohydrate craving and weight gain associated with related changes in serotonin. In an effort to design, educate and create the proper protocols for clients, however, it should be remembered that every person is different, as is every day.

The following can help determine which nutrients and common foods affect our well-being:

Carbohydrates – A key chemical in food tied to your mood is serotonin. Higher levels of serotonin influence your concentration, keep you calmer and help keep you from being depressed.

Low serotonin levels may increase your appetite and cause intense cravings. Avoid this horror show by consuming plenty of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, fibre cereals, rice and potatoes and minimising your processed food intake.

Fat – Eating too little fat can make you feel grouchy. Adequate quantities of fat increase levels of endorphins, opiate-like chemicals that are the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters. To help keep your moods on an even keel, choose healthy fats, such as monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, almonds and avocados. Additionally, the omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood – especially salmon, lobster and shrimp – as well as walnuts and olive oil, may also help to reduce depression. And, contrary to popular belief, tinned tuna is not a significant source of omega-3s, since the canning process reduces the tuna’s fat content.

Diets low in fat can make you depressed. Research has shown that diets that drastically cut
down on all calories and fat are associated with depression and possibly metabolic syndromes. You can avoid the highs and lows of mood and energy associated with fluctuating blood sugar levels by choosing foods that are digested slowly, lower glycemic foods such as vegetables, whole grains, oats, low fat yogurt and peanuts.

Protein – Protein increases alertness and helps give you more energy. Protein contains an amino acid called tyrosine, which increases dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine levels responsible for alertness and excitement. Low levels help contribute to anxiety. Eggs, low-fat cheese, milk, tofu, lean meats, fish, legumes and turkey trigger the release of endorphins that increase the release of dopamine.

Caffeine Caffeine increases mental alertness, concentration and can improve performance; however, too much caffeine has been associated with anxiety, cravings, depression, emotional instability, insomnia, mood swings, nervousness, PMS and a downer during withdrawal, though this is different with each person.

Vitamin B6, vitamin C, folic acid (folate) and zinc – These are all essential ‘good mood’ nutrients needed to make serotonin from the tryptophan found in meat, fish and beans. Minerals such as folic acid and selenium are involved in mood-related disorders. A lack of folic acid in the diet may be linked to depression.

Oranges, turkey, asparagus, beetroot, soybeans and green, leafy vegetables such as spinach are good sources of folic acid. Too little selenium in the diet can make you grouchy, anxious and depressed. Good sources of selenium include whole grains, tomatoes, eggs, broccoli, tuna and sunflower seeds.

Chocolate – It is possible that we crave high fat, sugar-laden foods to experience the blues-busting benefits of endorphins. These findings could explain cravings for chocolate, a sweet and creamy concoction that’s hard to resist. Composed of 50 per cent fat and 50 per cent sugar content plus an endorphin-releasing substance called phenylethylamine, chocolate may offer the perfect blend of ingredients both to stimulate and soothe at the same time. The fat and sugar in chocolate can raise both serotonin and endorphin levels. This helps explain why some women may crave chocolate before and during their cycle.

While most researchers agree that a physiological ‘switch’ occurs when we eat certain foods,
not all agree on the cause. The chemical cornucopia in our brain isn’t always easy to understand. In the world of science, this means it’s hard to establish a direct link between our brain chemistry and our physical or emotional response. Choosing certain foods may not be about mood, but more about the body’s adjustment to its nutrient content or perhaps abstract feelings that drive you to choose certain foods.

Food and mood research is still in its infancy; however, given what science has currently revealed, it’s imperative to determine what information is practical to use in our everyday lives, and to share this information with clients accordingly. When considering which foods to eat and when, the first consideration is to do no harm. If a food ultimately limits or conflicts with their diet, then that particular food may not be appropriate for them. When evaluating the foods that enhance state of mind, comfort or potentially alter mood, we should all ask; ‘Is this something that’s reasonable for me to eat and include in my diet? And, if so how much of it should I eat and how often?’

Scott Josephson, MS, RD
Scott is the director of operations at Hippocrates Health Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida. A registered dietitian, he presents at conferences throughout North America and has received numerous awards including the 2005 Director of the Year for Teaching Excellence and the 2010 Specialty Presenter of the Year for Can-Fit-Pro. Scott is on the international advisory boards for Can-Fit-Pro and American Fitness Professionals and Associates and has worked with numerous sports celebrities.


Scott will be divulging more of his expansive nutrition and training know-how at FILEX 2011. Choose from:

• Sugar sabotage! (A1L)
• Want more muscle? Training for shape and size (A2E)
• Sports supplements: promises, pitfalls and the good stuff (A4F)
• Women, metabolism and the hormone highway (B1G)
• Eating for energy and performance (B3F)
• Winning at losing – weight management made simple (B5A)

For program information click the links above or check out the Personal Training and the Nutrition & Fat Loss strands in your FILEX brochure. Visit www.filex.com.au to view the entire brochure and register online.