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Good Eats: Fuel for Better Living

Brewing Moods

By Owen C. Franklin

This food-mood connection can spark overwhelming questions: Will my hamburger make me anti-social? What type of soup should I eat to boost my self-esteem?

Elaine Goodyear calls five o’clock "the bewitching hour" — the time she whips up a concoction to help her cope with workday stress.

"I’m a teacher, and I’m incredibly active all day long," said Goodyear. "I need something to calm myself down."

Many people use food to change their mood. Some common choices are a cup of tea or a glass of wine. But Goodyear grabs a slice of whole wheat bread.

"It’s a nice cozy food," said Goodyear. "It puts me on an even keel and helps me face the rest of the day."

It might be hard to consider a carbohydrate a sedative. But Goodyear uses a wide range of foods to complement and influence her state of mind. She learned about these tools through a course entitled "The Food-Mood Connection."

A fresh look at food

Christina Pirello, host of the National Public Broadcasting Service program Christina Cooks, teaches this course. This class reflects the growing interest in a new health concept: the idea that we can manipulate our moods through our diets.

"The way you choose to eat on a daily basis can determine if and how you kick those everyday roadblocks," said Pirello.

The idea that what we consume can affect our disposition is still in its infancy, and it can be difficult to find a physician who has fully explored its capabilities. But nutrition experts are applying their research in this field in an effort to educate consumers.

"There’s a definite link between how we feel and what we think," said June M. Lay, a certified nutritionist at the Sparta Strength and Conditioning Center in New York City. "Still, people don’t think they can get moody and connect it to food."

Making the connection

So how can your food influence your mood? The answers range from simple to complex.

• Meal fatigue

A large meal can mean an all-day workout for your body. Your digestive system requires blood and energy to process food. As your organs expend this energy, you may feel fatigued and in turn become cranky or even slightly depressed.

• Blood sugar levels

As our bodies digest food, the sugar level in our blood increases. When this level is kept fairly constant it can promote a stable amount of energy and a stable mood. If we go without eating, our blood sugar levels can plummet. If we eat sweet foods, our blood sugar level can skyrocket, then take a sharp dive.

"When you have that quick drop, that’s when the moodiness comes in," said Lay. "You can’t think and then it’s a big domino effect."

• Neurotransmitters

Here’s the theory: chemicals in the brain called "neurotransmitters" influence moods. Different amounts of these chemicals can promote different reactions in the brain. Depending on what you eat, various foods will increase the levels of different neurotransmitters and set us up for different moods.

A Thanksgiving meal provides a good example of this process. Turkey meat contains tryptophan, a building block of the neurotransmitter seratonin, that promotes relaxation. As seratonin increases, we experience the familiar post-Thanksgiving exhaustion.

Making your mood

This food-mood connection can spark overwhelming questions: Will my hamburger make me anti-social? What type of soup should I eat to boost my self-esteem?

But before we ask how we can eat right, we may need to look at how we are already eating wrong.

Beginning the day

Many people eat a meager breakfast; others skip the meal altogether. This, according to nutritionists, is a common mistake that can have an impact your moods for the entire day.

"Nothing will affect people more than not eating," said Lay. "One of my clients starting actually having breakfast and realized she wasn’t cranky anymore."

• Dabbling in sweets

While sweets and treats may satisfy your cravings, they can leave you feeling jittery. Sweet foods are digested very quickly, and immediately saturate your blood with sugars.

"Many people go to bed with a high sugar food in their systems," said Lay. "That’s very disruptive to the sleep."

This doesn’t mean you have to boycott dessert. Lay said a small amount of sugar can be fine when it accompanies a large meal. That way, the sugar is digested slowly along with the rest of the food.

From palette to plate

In order to avoid these dietary obstacles, your diet might have to undergo some change. But food experts say making the right choices can lead to great advantages.

• Carbohydrates

Nutritionists say foods high in carbohydrates can help reduce tension: Whole grain pasta, winter squash and green cabbage can mend a frazzled mind.

"They’re great to end a stressful day," said Pirello. "They can kind of release the tension from the day and help you get set for tomorrow."

• Greens

Pirello says bitter greens can help sharpen your focus. A meal made with arugula or watercress could prepare you for a mental task.

"You might want to have these for dinner the night before a big meeting," said Pirello.

• Proteins

It’s common knowledge that proteins are a great source of energy. Pirello says vegetable proteins, such as bean curd, pack the most powerful punch. By snacking on proteins throughout the day, you can avoid those mid-day troughs.

"It’s important to keep fueling," said Pirello. "Keep yourself simmering."

Taking it in

Clearly, there’s a lot of information to chew on and there will likely be more as the food-mood connection goes under the medical microscope. For now, testing nutrition experts suggest your own personal trial. Here, the proof is in the… well… arugula.

Owen C. Franklin is a content producer at savvyHEALTH.com.

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