Cutting-edge science shows that your gut has a mind of its own — which has a huge impact on your emotional and physical health. In surprising ways, we are what we eat.
Our bodies are finely-tuned and complex machines, capable of amazing feats. But there’s also a vast amount we don’t know. The links between mind and body might still be the most mysterious area of all — but science is always discovering more and pushing the frontiers. Researchers have only recently begun to explore how food can affect our emotions. Leading the way is Australian scientist Professor Felice Jacka, PhD, Director of the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University and President of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research.
“A very large body of research from around the world now tells us the quality of our diets is linked to our risk for common mental disorders, such as depression, and this is true right across the lifespan,” Jacka explains.
In other words, our food may be a cause of stress, anxiety and depression — and improving our diet might also help treat such conditions. It’s commonly accepted that mood can affect how we feel, physically. When we’re happy, we tend to feel lighter, brighter and more energetic. Conversely, when we’re down and out after a setback, we feel unmotivated, tired and sometimes physically unwell. We can also turn to food, whether it be chocolate, cake or even coffee, to improve our mood.
Fortunately, we’re now beginning to understand the complex link between food and mood, and what it really means to have food on the brain.
Mental rewards of eating well
Eating well makes us feel physically better, but can we really eat ourselves happy?
In early 2017, Jacka’s team published results of a first-of-its kind study looking at whether improving diet could improve the mood of people with depression. It was called the ‘SMILES’ study, and what they found was very encouraging.
After 12 weeks on a diet that focused on fruit, vegies, whole grains, legumes, fish, lean red meats, olive oil and nuts (and reducing processed junk foods), participants had a much greater reduction in their depressive symptoms, compared to those who received social support.
“Those who adhered more closely to the dietary program and made the most improvements experienced the greatest benefit to their depression symptoms,” Jacka explains.
The research team also found the SMILES diet was cheaper than the diets that participants were on when they started the study. Another research team replicating the diet came up with similar results, suggesting links to a reduced risk of a mental illness.
“We’re only just beginning to understand that depression’s underpinnings involve multiple systems within the body, most notably the immune system, brain plasticity and the gut, and that these systems are strongly influenced by what we eat, ”Jacka says.
A gut reaction
If you’ve ever had ‘butterflies’ or a grumbling tummy when you’re stressed or anxious, you’ve experienced how our brain and gut are connected.
We each have a network of 100 million neurons (nerve cells) stretching from our oesophagus to our colon, forming what’s known as our ‘enteric brain’.
This gut-brain is in constant communication with the brain in our head, with signals travelling both ways — and these affect our moods.
The trillions of bacteria living in our gastrointestinal tract play their part too. The weight of microbes in our gut is approximately the same as that in our brain, so our gut is often called our ‘second brain’.
“From what we know so far, the gut and its resident microbes appear to play a critical role in our immune functioning, metabolism, body weight and brain health, and possibly even in our behaviour,” Jacka says.
Feed your mind
Both gut and head brains are affected by emotions, as well as by our lifestyle choices, so it makes sense to take care of our gut bacteria via what we eat. So, what foods keep our gut bacteria healthy?
“It’s a simple message that boils down to consuming plenty of fibre,” Jacka says. “If you eat a lot of fruit, vegies, whole grains and legumes, and stay away from processed foods that are high in added sugar and fat, your gut microbes and your brain will be happy.”
You should also keep alcohol to a minimum, include prebiotic foods like under-ripe bananas and cooked and cooled potatoes, and try fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha. You’ll also do your gut a favour by exercising regularly and finding ways to keep a lid on stress.
Emotional eating explained
Just as food affects our mood, the way we feel also influences our food choices. Most of us can recall times when food — whether it was chocolate, coffee, a glass of wine after work or an ice cream — made us feel a better. Our reactions to difficult situations that cause low mood, and how that affects food choices, depend on the kind of eater we are.
Psychology researchers have classified people using what they call an Emotional Eating Scale. People classified as ‘emotional eaters’ tend to react to negative emotions by overeating.
Boredom, anger, loneliness or depression can sometimes trigger a bout of eating. Some people even eat as a form of rebellion or self-punishment. Emotional eaters often tend to overeat in response to a happy mood, too — that is, using food as reward. This behaviour may stem from childhood, when treat foods rewarded good behaviour. We’re more complicated than we know!
Highs & lows
So, if healthy foods are vital for good mood, improved energy levels and better health, why is that it foods like chocolate, biscuits, chips and cake temporarily make us feel better?
It largely comes down to brain chemicals. Certain foods excite the brain, lifting its level of feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin, a chemical that experts link to elevated mood.
Here’s the catch. Indulgence foods may make us feel high in the short term, but these positive effects are usually fleeting. For emotional eaters, this is usually followed by feelings of guilt or shame, which leads to a drop in mood. Enter the vicious cycle of emotional eating.
When we’re stressed, tired or upset, we tend to focus on what’s close to us physically and in the ‘here and now’ to help get us through that moment, rather than thinking about how we can keep to our long-term health and wellbeing goals.
On the other hand, when we’re in a more positive mindset we are more likely to look towards our long-term health goals, to limit the foods we know are not great for us, or maybe even head outdoors for a walk, or perhaps do a workout.
Check your mood
The relationship between food and feelings is very complex, so overcoming emotional eating takes time to work through.
Emotional eating tends to be automatic and virtually mindless. So it s important to understand your current mood, and to try to make decisions based on your long-term goals. The more you do this, the more confidence you’ll gain in your willpower and overall health.
It’s also important not to try to numb your sad or negative feelings. Instead of avoiding and trying to soothe them with food, work on acknowledging them, and on solutions to help you cope. Give yourself time to work through these challenges by using positive coping strategies or doing things you love.
How to change your food thinking
Pinpoint your emotional triggers
Keep a food-and-mood diary recording what and when you ate, and how you felt before, during and after eating.
Make a list of non-food rewards
When you’re about to reach out for food, reach over for that list. A manicure, beach walk or hot bath can be more relaxing ways to spoil yourself.
Check in with your feelings
When a food craving strikes, take a moment to pause, and ask yourself how you’re feeling. What’s going on emotionally? You’ll often find that waiting five minutes is enough forthe craving to pass.
Find a support network
Once you begin to recognise what drives you to eat, you may also realise you need the help of a psychologist, psychiatrist or Accredited Practising Dietitian.
Eating while watching TV, driving or scrolling through social media can prevent you from fully enjoying your food, and may mean you ignore fullness cues. Practise mindful eating: switch everything off, eat slowly, and savour every bite.
Do things that make you happy
Maybe catch up with friends, go to a yoga class, walk the dog, or take an art or dance class.
If your emotional eating stems from boredom, keep your mind busy by reading a good book or starting a new hobby.
Stop judging food
Thinking of any food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ has no place when you are aiming to follow a healthy approach to eating. To change the way you think about food, you also need to change the language you use. Instead of saying ”I’ll never eat chocolate again”, try ”I won't eat it now”.
Don’t expect that the world will change and give you all the answers after one yoga or reflection session. Consistency is the key to changing habits — and forming positive strategies..
Work on positive self-talk
Tell yourself it’s okay to feel sad, mad or angry, and replace negative self-talk with positive affirmations. For example, you can replace ”I am a failure” with ”I learn from my mistakes”.
Good mood food
Add these mood-boosting foods to your weekly shop!
Lentils, beans & chickpeas
Lean red meat
58% of Aussies say they feel guilty when they eat unhealthily
Women who diet a lot are 75% more likely to experience depression