Food and Mood: Eating for Energy, Connection, and Health

~ By Megan Igel, PA-C, MPAS ~

The dining table is a common meeting place for families and friends, and food is often the centerpiece when there’s a reason to celebrate. Your family’s traditional foods might be the most exciting part of annual holiday meals, or maybe you have a favorite birthday cake you crave year after year. In this way, food becomes an important part of our social and cultural celebrations, and it also can be linked to some of our most powerful memories.

With an important role in our social lives and cultural milestones, food becomes more than fuel for our daily activities. Plus, what we eat can also alter our physical and mental states. Food affects the body’s metabolism, hormones, and even neurotransmitters, which are the brain’s mood chemicals. Since food does so much more than fill up our stomachs, it’s important to make healthy food choices that will not only contribute to our overall health in a positive way but also ultimately boost our moods and contribute to a healthy mental state.

Vitamins, Food, and Mood

As a physician assistant, I often see patients who are over the age of 65 and going through major life changes. Sometimes these stressors can cause anxiety and even depression. When this happens, don’t forget that food is an essential part of overall health. Instead of eating unhealthy foods as a coping mechanism, or instead of having mealtimes go by the wayside, it’s even more important to be thoughtful about food choices during difficult times.

If you think that your eating habits might be having an impact on your physical and mental health, share these concerns with your doctor. We’re equipped to do screenings for vitamin deficiencies, and the information you gain from a screening could help you make dietary changes to ensure that you’re getting essential vitamins and minerals from a combination of food and supplements.

Some vitamin deficiencies can affect mood, and vitamin B12 and vitamin D are common deficiencies among seniors. These vitamin deficiencies can cause feelings of fatigue or an overall sense of just not feeling well. A vitamin B12 deficiency can also affect memory, and some people who have this deficiency might display dementia-like symptoms.

Taking a multivitamin can help safeguard against vitamin deficiencies, but a vitamin a day won’t ensure overall health. Exercise and eating well-balanced meals that include lean meats and raw fruits and vegetables are also key components of a healthy lifestyle. Like healthy food, exercise promotes a positive mental outlook and greatly contributes to both physical and mental health.

Getting a mood boost from food certainly includes enjoying the social aspects of eating, but here are some ways to experience the benefits of healthy eating, whether you’re dining alone or sitting around a shared table with family and friends:

Foster community around mealtimes to experience the positive social benefits of eating with others.
Don’t be shy-invite neighbors to join you for a shared meal. Take turns cooking, if desired, or create the meal together. If you are living in an assisted living facility, join others at mealtimes instead of eating alone. Eating with others can have the mood-boosting benefits that come along with lasting friendships, community, shared stories, laughs, and smiles.

When shopping for pre-made or frozen meals, take some extra time to ensure quality ingredients.
Look for options that are lower in salt and saturated fat and include nutritional ingredients such as whole grains, vegetables, and lean meats such chicken, pork, or fish. Healthy pre-made entrŽe brands to look for include Kashi and Amy’s.

Avoid sugar and foods that contain processed sugar.
Sugars, which include carbohydrates, can affect mood by creating the sense of a quick high followed by an energetic low. Foods with a high glycemic index can heighten this effect. Cutting out sugar and choosing low glycemic foods will help you avoid spiking blood sugar levels and their accompanying mood swings. Instead of eating white bread, white potatoes or white rice, choose whole grain or sprouted grain breads, sweet potatoes, brown rice, or another whole grain such as quinoa instead.

Drink water.
Very few people can stay in a positive mood when they’re uncomfortably dehydrated or constipated, and drinking pure, clean water is the best way to stay hydrated. Instead of spending a lot of money each month on supplements to ease constipation, put that money into purchasing fresh, fibrous fruits and vegetables such as apples, raspberries, pears, green beans, fresh corn, and broccoli. If constipation is an issue for you, avoid bananas despite their other nutritional benefits.

If you’ve had a screening to check for vitamin deficiencies and pinpointed areas in which you’re vitamin deficient, then talk with your doctor and begin meeting with a nutritionist to address those needs.
Also invest you own time in researching and investigating foods that contain needed vitamins, and get creative in trying new meals that contain them.

Finally, practice physical and mental awareness while eating.
Take note of which foods make you feel energetic and which foods leave you feeling tired. Be aware of when you feel light-headed, shaky, or excessively thirsty after eating. When you’re feeling constipated, consider how your eating patterns might have contributed to that effect. Once you have a better idea of how what you eat affects your physical and mental states, then make conscious choices to eat more foods that leave you feeling healthy, lively, and satisfied.

The link between food and mood involves more than what’s on your plate. If you’re already eating balanced, nutrition-packed meals and still feeling fatigued or depressed, then share these details with your provider. But if you know that you could make healthier food choices, then begin with your next meal-and ask your family, friends, or neighbors to join you.

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