The Food and Mood Connection: How Food Makes You Happy

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

Your mood has more to do with the food that you eat than you may realize. The effects go both ways. A poor diet causes mental health and behavioral issues and a poor mood contributes to unhealthy eating habits.

Healthy eating habits rank high on the list of self-love priorities for a reason. There are numerous links between maintaining a healthy diet and happiness. But more importantly, there are even more links between a poor diet and unhappiness.

How Poor Eating Habits Steal Your Happiness

A busy life on the go leaves little time for healthy eating habits. Modern conveniences like drive-thru windows and on-demand meals make it difficult to make healthy choices. Expanding waistlines and a growing obesity problem are commonly attributed to convenience and processed foods.

But the lesser-known effect of a poor diet is depression and anxiety, two of the fastest-growing mental health disorders with as many as 11 million Americans (and many more globally) diagnosed annually. One European study found a link between poor diet and mental health in adolescents which is likely true for people of all ages and may point to food as the culprit for the rise in depression and anxiety-related disorders.

Sugar (and Fat) Addictions

Tasty treats that are high in sugar and high in fat trigger the reward center in the brain, releasing feel-good hormones for a quick dose of happy. While the food is pleasurable in the moment, consuming these foods feeds an addiction cycle similar to using drugs.

The human body loves to take the lazy approach to metabolic processes. It uses sugar and fat as easy fuel sources to avoid having to do the hard work of converting energy. This cheat causes the body to send signals (cravings) to the brain to make these foods more desirable.

The cravings cause more unhealthy foods that are high in sugar and fat to be consumed, further perpetuating the addiction and increasing the risk of anxiety and depression.

Blood Sugar and Mood Swings

Erratic blood sugar levels that spike high after meals and dip low before meals are responsible for some poor behaviors. Unstable blood sugar levels may affect diabetics most often, but anyone is susceptible to these fluctuations if they skip meals.

If you occasionally notice that you have a shorter temper and become more irritable when you are hungry, dips in blood sugar are to blame. In addition to poor behavior, unstable blood sugar levels can make you feel disoriented, confused, irritable, and out of control.

With a laundry list of negative emotions and instability swirling around inside your head, it is hard to be happy. Plus, unstable blood sugar can also increase feelings of anxiety and depression. The good news is there is a simple answer - if you are diabetic, take your medication and manage your blood sugar levels. And, if you are not, pay more attention to your diet to stabilize your sugars and improve your mood.

Food Choices and Cognitive Function

Your brain health, including memory and cognitive skills are important for your quality of life and resulting happiness later in life. The science shows that lean proteins, fruits and vegetables do the most to support cognitive function and limit the risks of dementia.

Some research suggests that specific diets may have a greater benefit to supporting and preserving cognitive function. Mediterranean-based diets that focus on limiting red meats and incorporating whole grains, fruits and vegetables are currently thought to be the best for Alzheimer's and dementia.

The Psychology of Healthy Food Choices

If you routinely make healthy food choices, including whole grains, lean meats, fruits and vegetables, your brain chemistry will thank you. First, when your cells are nourished with appropriate nutrients, the ripple effect will positively impact all of your body processes.

The weight of chronic fatigue, brain fog, anxiety and depression that is related to dietary choices can be effectively reversed with long-term diet changes. Each of these things detracts from your baseline of happiness by affecting how you feel each day.

The change is gradual and the cause is sometimes difficult to pinpoint. The point is that a healthy diet is important for more than your physical health. Your diet may be equally important to your mental health and ultimate happiness.

The Bottom Line

Happiness is based on fulfilling your essential needs. One of the most basic needs is proper nutrition. You can satisfy your hunger with a lot of tasty and convenient foods that do little to fill your nutritional needs.


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