Lisa Cooper, RD

Lisa Cooper, RD
Registered and Licensed Dietitian
Orlando Health

You’ve had a bad day at work, and you’re stressed and tired. As soon as you get home, you serve yourself a big bowl of ice cream. It makes you feel better – at least for a bit. Sound familiar?

The relationship between food, stress and mood is powerful and emotional. Responses to the mood-food connection often are learned. Say your anxiety is lessened after you eat — that will motivate you to keep repeating that response.

But there is good news: you might be surprised to learn how relatively easy it is to start to make changes that will improve your mood along with your overall health.

A Vicious Circle

Three-quarters of Americans surveyed believe what they eat impacts their mental and emotional well-being, and that their emotional state has a significant impact on their food choices. Yet we don’t always do a good job connecting those dots. Gen Z and Millennials — statistically more likely to be aware of this connection — also report historically high levels of stress, which may help drive them to even less healthy choices than other age groups.

The mood-food connection can be particularly hard for young people to navigate. When they hit puberty and then leave home for college, their mood-food relationships can change, including issues with body image that affect eating, not eating at home as much or not participating in the sports and activities they did in high school. And there no longer is a parent around who might notice a change in stress and food choices. Economics also can play a role: Young adults might choose more packaged, highly processed foods because that’s what they can afford.

Stress and nutrition are tightly interwoven — changes in either can cause inflammation that impacts the immune system, as well as digestive issues and weight gain. The key to breaking the cycle is to learn new responses to stress, like going for a walk or calling a friend. Just knowing that you’re a stress or emotional eater often isn’t enough to stop the behavior. It takes practice and being cognizant of your actions, but it is doable. There are tools that can help, including counseling and behavioral therapy.

Making the Change

Change is hard, and it takes motivation. But dietitians will tell you that most people who begin this journey report feeling better almost immediately. Whether from exercise, less sugar, healthier fats or just a greater range of nutritional foods, a healthier lifestyle quickly improves both your quality of life and your outlook, and that motivates you to keep going. You don’t need to eat kale salads every day to achieve this — dietitians can help you identify foods you do like or are willing to try, and teach you ways to use or prepare them that will help you meet your goals. Maybe you love to snack on raspberries — that awareness might lead you to add them to your breakfast every day. Making these sorts of adaptations becomes a habit if you choose foods you truly enjoy, so you get positive reinforcement.

Supplements also can play a role, although it’s always preferable to get nutrients, vitamins and minerals from whole foods whenever possible. Even a beneficial nutrient, if taken in high doses, can be harmful. Treat supplements like medicine, and speak with your doctor before embarking on this route.

Mediterranean, Again!

Yep, you’ve heard it before: A diet built around fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil and fish reliably contributes to a host of health benefits, including a lowered risk for depression.

The Mediterranean connection goes back a lot further than the popular diet — which began to emerge from scientific surveys in the 1950s — all the way to Hippocrates. This physician of ancient Greece, known as the father of medicine, was the first to suggest that food could have healing powers. (The word diet derives from the Greek word diaita, meaning “lifestyle” or “way of life.”)

Today we know that 90 percent of serotonin and other mood-regulating neurotransmitters are produced in the gut — nutrition and diet are increasingly considered as important to psychiatry as they are to the study of any other human systems. One way to feed that connection is though fermented foods that contain live probiotics, which will help populate your gut with beneficial bacteria. As those bacteria digest what’s called prebiotics — high-fiber foods — they help produce those neurotransmitters.

Another mood-food connection known to the ancient world is herbs and spices. These include things like curcumin, which is found in turmeric and can help with depression; rosemary and black pepper, which have anti-depressant effects; and lemon balm, which the Greeks and Romans used to treat stress and insomnia. Holy basil, American ginseng and sage also may also help reduce stress.


Source: Orlando Health,