Mood and Food

Sep 1, 2023

Anyone who has ever cared for children can tell you a hungry child is a cranky child. While this is just as true for adults, the same person who would never think to send a child to school on an empty stomach probably doesn’t think twice about calling their morning cup of coffee “breakfast” and going to work.

All meals are important, not just breakfast

Think of it like this: our brains are engines that operate around the clock to keep our bodies going – heart beating, lungs breathing. Like any engine, when the brain starts to run out of fuel, it starts to run less effectively. When you haven’t eaten in a while, the glucose in your blood (blood sugar) decreases. When your blood sugar gets too low, it triggers a cascade of hormones, which can cause you to become irritated, have trouble concentrating, and be more likely to make mistakes. Recent studies have shown that hunger can be a significant cause of both mental and physical stress, impacting both our mood and our sense of self-esteem, which can worsen symptoms in people already experiencing depression or anxiety.

We’re only beginning to understand how diet may affect mood

While the available research is increasingly clear that there is a physical and psychological link between hunger and mood, the link between what we eat and our mental health is less established, and the results vary.

It’s also important to understand what studies on diet and depression do and do not show. These studies do not show that diet causes depression. What they do show is that there is a general correlation between a healthy diet and better mental health, meaning that these qualities were often found together in the same people (i.e., people who ate better tended to have better mental health). But that doesn’t mean that following a certain diet will prevent you from ever developing depression or that eating junk food will cause you to become depressed. Just as there are non-smokers who develop lung disease, even Gwyneth Paltrow gets depressed.

Prevent hanger by eating regular, well-balanced meals

To go back to the idea of our brain as an engine, think of your diet (and its buddy, exercise) as part of your regular engine maintenance to keep your brain running efficiently. Here are a few tips on how to eat better to help improve your mood and prevent “hanger”:

  1. Eat regular meals
  2. Avoid skipping meals—even before the pandemic, an alarming number of Canadians routinely skipped meals
  3. Eat more fruit and vegetables – about 70% of Canadians don’t eat enough of these foods
  4. Eat protein with each meal, particularly lentils, nuts, fish, and lean meats
  5. Trade simple carbohydrates like white bread and pasta for whole-grain
  6. Drink more water and less caffeine, pop, fruit juices and smoothies, and alcohol
  7. Reduce or avoid eating highly processed, sugary, or fatty snacks like chocolate bars, doughnuts, chips, French fries, etc., particularly as a way to replace meals. Despite the Snickers ads, the quick hit of energy from eating a chocolate bar may actually make you feel worse as your blood sugar quickly goes up and then falls again.

Remember that something is better than nothing

Changing habits and building new ones is difficult under the best of circumstances. A lack of time, and especially money, can make it feel like it’s impossible to change or improve what and how you eat. Diet and wellness culture can make this feeling worse by telling you fresh fruit and vegetables are more nutritious than frozen (they aren’t) or promoting recipes full of pricey ingredients. But small changes, like one less cup of coffee a day (especially if, like this author, you drink coffee in the afternoons), can still make a difference. For example, drinking less caffeine can help you sleep better, which can also help improve your mood.

For more information on improving your eating habits, including overcoming barriers to healthy eating and tips for eating health on a budget, visit the Canada Food Guide.  

Federated Health Charities member Heart & Stroke also has tips on how to eat healthy on a budget, including smart substitutes for pricey or harder-to-find ingredients.

You can support Heart & Stroke and contribute to the health and well-being of Ontarians by donating to Federated Health Charities today at Donate Now – Federated Health.

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For general questions:

Sarah Wood
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437-925-6227
sarah.wood2@ontario.ca

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Federated Health Charities White Logo

For general questions:

Sarah Wood
Executive Director
437-925-6227
sarah.wood2@ontario.ca

Address

315 Front St. West, 5th Floor
Toronto, ON
M7A 0B8

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