We are all aware of how our moods influence our food choices.  Many of us have used food as an alternative to feeling our feelings.  It is often easier to feel full than it is to feel angry, sad, lonely, depressed or anxious.  We celebrate with food, we commiserate with food, we soothe ourselves with food.  Our mood often impacts the decision to eat and what we choose to eat!

But did you know that what you eat also influences how you feel.  The food we eat can actually impact our mood.  What we eat can contribute to feelings of stress, anxiety, sadness and even depression.  Our food choices even influence how our brain ages and can contribute to the development of dementia or Alzheimer’s in our later years.

How food impacts brain health

The food we eat provides the basic building blocks for all of our physiological needs.   Our brain weighs about 2% of our body mass but uses 20% of our caloric needs.  We know that what we eat impacts our health, but a lot of people forget that our brain is attached to our body and what we eat impacts its health as well!

If you were to build a house out of rotten lumber what do you think would happen??  The food we eat essentially provides the building blocks we use to build and renovate a healthy body and brain.  Healthy food, healthy brain.


Food provides the building blocks for a healthy brain

Neurotransmitter synthesis requires adequate amino acids (which are derived from protein) and vitamin and mineral co factors.  Deficiencies in either protein or B12, folate, B6 and zinc can cause symptoms of depression and dementia such as low mood, fatigue, cognitive decline and irritability.

Omega 3 fatty acids also benefit our moods and reduce the risk of dementia.  Recently a large meta- analysis which included 26 studies and over 150,000 individuals confirmed that high fish consumption (which is one of the best sources of omega 3 fatty acids) is significantly associated with a reduced risk of depression.  Other research has also shown that some diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids (especially EPA) has a beneficial effect on the symptoms of depression.

The brain on fire

One of the reasons that omega 3 fatty acids are beneficial is that they are anti-inflammatory.  More and more research is linking neuro inflammation to depression, anxiety, dementia, Alzheimer’s and ADHD.  Omega 3 fatty acids help put out the fire!

One of the challenges with the standard North American Diet is that we don’t consume enough omega 3 fatty acids and we over consume omega 6 fatty acids – which are pro inflammatory.  Current ratios of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids are 16:1.   Traditional diets ranged from 4:1 to 1:4.  A far cry from current consumption ratios.

Antioxidants also play a role

A diet rich in antioxidants can have a positive impact on mood and brain health in general.  Antioxidants are substances that protect our cells against the effects of free radicals.  Free radicals are by products  of normal physiological processes.  They are also created  after exposure to a variety environmental toxins such as cigarette smoke, pollution etc.  Free radicals cause oxidative stress and contribute to the development of many diseases ranging from cancer, heart disease , depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis to name just a few.

Vitamins A,C and E, carotenoids, flavonoids, tannins, lignans and phenols are antioxidants derived from food that protect our cells from free radical damage.

Plant based foods are the best sources – fruits, vegetables, nuts,

seeds, herbs, spices, whole grains.  And even chocolate!  Current dietary recommendations are 7 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables.  In 2014, only 39.5% of Canadians aged 12 and older reported eating 5 or more servings daily.

Lets talk about sugar

Sugar also impacts our mood.  There are actually no government guidelines in North America regarding the daily intake of sugar.  The World Health Organization recommends we decrease our consumption of added sugar to no more than 5% of our daily calories or a maximum of 6 teaspoons of sugar daily.  If you read labels it is helpful to know that 4 grams of sugar is equal to 1 teaspoon.

The average Canadian eats 18 teaspoons of sugar daily.  That is an astounding 88 pounds a year.  Teenagers eat more – boys a whopping 138 pounds of sugar a year.


Sugar is like a drug

When we eat sugar there is a release of feel good hormones.  Sugar hijacks the brains reward pathway.  Over activity of this reward system leads to more cravings and an increased tolerance to sugar.  So begins a vicious cycle of cravings.

Sugar and carb laden foods mess with our brains neurotransmitters.  Sugar also causes our blood sugar crash and can cause symptoms such as irritability, mood swings, brain fog and fatigue.  Chronically high blood sugar has also been linked to inflammation in the brain.

The standard N.A. diet that is high in processed food (sugar, fat, salt) increases the risk of  depression compared to those who eat a whole foods diet that is lower in sugar and processed food.


How to boost your mood with food

  • Start with real food. Real food is the kind of food that has been around for hundreds of years.   Avoid processed and refined food, preservatives, artificial flavours and sweeteners.
  • Get a minimum of 7 -10 servings of fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat fish several times a week. Wild salmon, herring, sardines are the highest in omega 3 fatty acids.  Supplement with a good source of fish oil if this is preferable.
  • Add more healthy fats to your diet. Great sources are nuts, seeds, avocados, flax seeds, extra virgin olive oil.
  • Eat less sugar and refined carbohydrates. Aim for less than 6 teaspoons daily.
  • Incorporate more herbs and spices into your cooking.
  • Enjoy good quality dark chocolate in moderation!!
  • But don’t forget to also move your body daily, practise gratitude, and have more fun…….


If you would like to better your mood with food please book an appointment with Dr. Alana Barmby.