Eating Well to Feel Well

By Candace Chemtob, MS, RD, LD, CSSD

Food and mood are more closely related than you may think. Besides being one letter apart, what and when you eat can influence your mood. If you have ever found yourself seeking out comfort foods after a bad day at the office or found yourself feeling hangry, you have experienced this connection firsthand.

One sure way to lift one’s mood is to indulge in comfort foods. They are generally rich in carbohydrates and that is no surprise. Carbohydrates stimulate a chemical in our brain that leads to feelings of well-being and calm. More than thirty years ago, MIT professor Richard Wurtman found that tryptophan (a component of proteins) can pass from the bloodstream into the brain only after a meal rich in carbohydrates. Tryptophan can be converted into serotonin in the brain which is a potent neurotransmitter known to improve mood.  Healthy carbohydrate foods are whole grains, fruits, low fat dairy and vegetables.

The reasons to eat a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids are mounting. Omega-3s improve heart health, protect against dementia, lower the risk for certain cancers, and evidence is mounting they may also enhance mood and alleviate depression More than thirty studies have examined the relationship between omega-3s and mood. Omega-3s are able to cross the brain barrier, making it possible that omega-3s may have a direct effect on the brain. Foods rich in omega-3s are salmon, mackerel, sardines, flaxseed, chia, soybean oil, canola oil and walnuts.

If you are a coffee lover, this is going to seem too good to be true, but coffee is a mood booster. In the short term, drinking caffeinated coffee improves mental focus, energy levels and athletic performance. Coffee’s positive influence on mood may be more than short lived. Harvard School of Public Health studied women who drank two to three cups of caffeinated coffee per day over a ten-year period. The risk of depression was 20% less in the coffee drinking group as compared to non-coffee drinkers.  Researchers are not sure how coffee changes brain chemistry to improve mood, but both in the short and long term, coffee appears to be a mood enhancer.

The news isn’t all good. If you regularly skip meals, restrict carbohydrates or are trying to lose weight, your diet may have a negative impact on your mood. Hangry is a clever new term to describe how being beyond hungry can affect your mood. Entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018, hangry is defined as “bad tempered or irritable as a result of hunger.” If you ignore hunger pangs and blood sugar levels begin to drop, mental concentration will begin suffer, and you may feel faint, irritable and shaky. The brain runs off sugar alone, and promptly sends signals throughout the body to raise blood sugar levels. Feeling hangry may also be the result of the release of stress hormones (epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol) that occurs when blood sugar levels drop.

Being aware of the connection between food and mood could give you a mental boost. There is no doubt that being in a positive mindset will no doubt help performance on and off the court.

P.S.  I would like to thank US Squash for me giving me the opportunity to write articles on nutrition since April 2011. It has been very gratifying these past eight years to give back to a community that has provided such a wonderful athletic experience for my children, Erica and Chloe Chemtob, through junior and college squash. And a big thanks to those of you who read and enjoyed these articles.