Fit for Life

We are what we eat: Food can impact the mood

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David Ryle hands plates of fresh greens to his smiling wife Wendy during a harvest dinner held out in the field at their home. Eating healthy foods such as vegetable can lead to more positive feelings. Digital First Media File Photo

By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury

Valentine’s Day may be over but we’re still in the middle of February which happens to be American Heart Month.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. The very serious condition can be prevented or managed by making healthier choices such as choosing nutritious meals to eat.

Not only does eating healthy help with heart disease but it can also be a mood booster just like eating unhealthy can contribute to depression or the winter blues. Courtney Schoepe, a registered dietitian and in-store nutritionist at the Giant Food Store in Havertown, shared how and why food affects the mood. Answers have been edited for clarity.

WE ARE WHAT WE EAT

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Red peppers are displayed. It’s important for both children and adults to eat the rainbow when choosing fruits and vegetables. Submitted Photo — GIANT Food Stores

Q: How can food affect how you feel?

A: The old saying “we are what we eat” really does ring true for most people. When they eat well, meaning a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein choices, it tends to help them to feel better in the long run. Your body feels better when it’s being fueled better. When we tend to eat things that are rich in high fats like our comfort foods and comfort snacks, which we tend to gravitate toward in the winter months, we kind of feel more sluggish. The sugar gets stored as fat and fat gets stored as fat so when you increase those types of things in your diet then you tend to feel less energy and less driven. Therefore it affects your mood to make you a little bit more down.

EAT THE RAINBOW, CHOOSE WHOLE GRAINS & LEAN PROTEINS

Q: What kinds of foods should we being eating in the wintertime to give us a boost of energy?

A: It’s most important to make sure that we’re still incorporating our fresh fruits and vegetables. Even if you don’t have access to fresh then utilize what’s available in the frozen department. That’s just as good as fresh in most cases. Still eat the rainbow every year. When I teach kids, I always tell them to eat the rainbow. It really is a good thing for even adults to strive to do especially in the winter months when maybe their favorite fruits and vegetables aren’t in season. Eat items that are in season that you haven’t tried before. In the rainbow of fruits and vegetables, all of our different vitamins and minerals come within the different color groups. If you’re not eating a certain color or many colors in the rainbow, you’re going to be low in some of the nutrients or vitamins and minerals that you need.

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Whole wheat sliced bread is displayed. A healthy diet including whole grains can lead to a better mood and less irritability. Submitted Photo- GIANT Food Stores

Also we want to make sure that we’re choosing whole grains as opposed to simple carbohydrates. Things that are simple carbohydrates are high in sugar. We tend to get a little quick energy boost after we eat them but then that energy boost drops. What’s known as a sugar high happens then you feel even more sluggish and more down after you’ve had that little high you get. It either makes you search for more sweets or you get in a vicious cycle of choosing poorly. Whereas if we choose whole grains, what happens is that they take a little longer for us to digest and give our body more lasting energy. It helps increase a more stable energy level which then can affect your mood better.

Fish is a really great lean protein choice especially our fatty fish like salmon because it has omega 3 fatty acids in them. One of the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids is it helps to decrease depression in addition it provides heart healthy benefits. Consuming enough omega 3 fatty acids can lead to less inflammation in our body. Incorporating fatty fish or fish in general at least twice a week should be a minimum goal. I like to see people do it three times a week but I know it’s a stretch for a lot of people. If people aren’t fish eaters, they could get their omega 3 fatty acids through flaxseeds or walnuts.

WHEN YOU EAT CAN ALSO AFFECT YOUR MOOD

Q: How can when we eat affect our energy or mood throughout the day?

A: A lot of times people eat too often within the day which makes you more tired because you’re digesting food more often. Also sometimes people won’t eat enough throughout the day. They will eat in the morning then eat nothing at night. Also when people eat heavy meals instead of small, frequent meals then you tend to be more sluggish as well.

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Students made a healthy snack out of celery and raisins during a family Wellness Night at Barth Elementary School in Pottstown. Eating healthy and nutritious foods can lead to a more positive mood.

So you when you eat and how you feel after you eat can directly affect your mood. I think that’s why most of us gravitate toward your “comfort foods,” whatever that may be when feeling lousy or sad. So when we eat them then we feel better. There’s the same connection to how often we eat. If you don’t eat often enough and your body’s not fueled right then you can become “hangry,” a combination of hungry and angry. People actually do become irritable and angry when they are hungry. If you’re really busy and you’re not in a normal eating pattern, then you may not even realize that’s one of the causes of why you’re so irritated all day long. If you get in a more regular routine of trying to eat every three or four hours then your body works better. Our bodies like to work like machines. It works better on a clockwork schedule as opposed to erratic behavior. If you’re able to eat in a regular pattern then it can contribute to you feeling better which can make you less irritable.

SMALL AND FREQUENT IS THE WAY TO GO

Q: Why is it recommended that people eat every three to four hours for best health and best mood?

A: It’s important for keeping our metabolism up. It keeps you blood sugar stable. It keeps your food coming in small, frequent amounts. Whenever you overload your body with calories all at one time, you feel sluggish. Whenever we eat too little at a time, it can slow your body down. It’s important to eat small, frequent meals in the day. Everybody’s amount that they need is different and that’s where nutrition counseling is helpful. In general, it’s best to have five to six meals in a day for most people depending on how long they’re awake.

MENTAL & PHYSICAL HEALTH ARE CONNECTED

Q: How can depression lead to serious heart conditions if not managed?

A: We see a link because when we’re depressed then we tend to eat more poorly. When we eat poorly, it’s directly impacting our body’s health. When we’re eating a diet that’s high in fat, specifically saturated fat and trans fat, it’s going to directly impact blood cholesterol levels. It will increase your poor cholesterol. If you don’t eat enough healthy fats like the omega 3 fatty acids then your good cholesterol will be low. At the end of day, how you’re feeling and what you’re choosing to eat can directly impact your heart health especially with high fat or high sugar. Not only a diet high in fat but a diet high in simple sugars can lead to heart disease. It all goes hand in hand. One day of bad eating won’t dramatically impact your health because it’s about moderation. But we tend to put ourselves in patterns and that’s what you really what to be aware of — making sure you’re not in an unhealthy rut.

BE HAPPY, EAT HEALTHY

Q: Do people tend to choose healthier eating options when they are in a good mood?

A: When they’re in a good mood, I think people are more willing to take the extra step to prepare their own foods. When you’re depressed you feel so lazy. You don’t feel good about yourself so you don’t want to do anything for yourself. When you’re lazy, it’s so much easier to drive through the fast food restaurant to grab something because it’s quicker and easier. Of course when you feel better then you’re more inclined to make better choices.

“The bottom line is to eat a balanced healthy diet incorporating all five of the food groups. Color is key in the fruits and vegetables goals especially in the winter months. It’s also important to make sure we are eating often enough to give our bodies the chance to function properly,” Schoepe said.

For more about Giant Food Stores including their healthy ideas shelf tag program, visit the website giantfoodstores.com.

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