As reported in the New York Times, new research in the field of nutritional psychiatry is linking the foods you eat with one’s mood and mental health.
Though this field is in its infancy, it’s intriguing to think that choosing healthier foods could not only boost your health but may also make you feel better.
One theory is that a healthy diet promotes a healthy gut, which then may affect our mood-regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
Other studies have shown correlations between those who ate more nutritious foods like vegetables and fruits with higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction.
Though more research is needed before mental health experts start prescribing a specific diet to treat mood disorders, here’s how I counsel patients about the food-mood connection and its relationship to health and weight:
1-The Food-Mood Connection is Complex
The food-mood connection is a complex one that has both psychological and biological underpinnings.
We know that seeking emotional comfort through food is a common coping behavior.
If you’re an emotional eater, food has most likely become your trusted and reliable friend.
We also know that certain types of foods, particularly fatty, salty or sugary foods, activate the same reward centers of the brain as do tobacco and cocaine.
Together, this can set the stage for unhealthy eating habits and an inability to cope healthfully with a range of emotions, such as feeling sad, lonely, anxious or bored.
2-Emotional (or Stress) Eating Doesn’t Fix the Problem
Repeated bouts of emotional eating can lead to an excessive intake of high-calorie sweet or savory foods while ignoring your emotions.
Though you may feel a lift to your mood initially, more often than not, you’re left with feelings of regret along with the negative emotion that triggered you to eat in the first place.
This short-term fix does nothing to improve your mood in the long term and also makes it hard to manage weight.
3-Finding Healthier Ways to Regulate Emotions Can Help You Better Manage Weight
Exploring ways you regulate your emotions is crucial to helping you take better control of your weight and health.
Instead of numbing your emotions with food, know that it’s okay to acknowledge and allow yourself to feel the emotions.
Negative emotions are a part of the human experience and nothing to be ashamed of; even the most intense feelings will pass with time.
If you can practice accepting the emotions you’re feeling and without self-judgement, you can be more thoughtful about choosing a healthier response, such as calling a friend, taking a walk, meditating or connecting with an online support group.
Choosing healthier coping responses that align with your life values can help you feel better.
Know that food can still be comforting, be pleasurable and taste good but you need to work on taking back control so food doesn’t have so much power over you.
If emotional eating is impairing your ability to manage weight, I encourage you to discuss this with your primary care provider, who is the gatekeeper for your health and can make referrals when needed to a health psychologist or registered dietitian nutritionist.
Robert Kushner, MD