Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.
Have you ever noticed how food influences mood? What should you eat to be alert and persuasive for the big presentation? Or to be a divine conversationalist for the cocktail party?
If you feel lazy after a large cheeseburger, bacon, fries, and ice cream, that is no surprise – and it is not only because your stomach is busy digesting a high-calorie meal.
Yes, what we eat is first processed in our stomach and pursues its road to the small intestine. From there it either gets rejected down or it gets absorbed into our bloodstream and circulates up to our brain. Since our CPU is an organ that is fed by the nutrients in our blood, what we eat definitely influences its workings.
Here’s more detail about how it happens: neurotransmitters are basically the vehicle used to transport information between neurons and other cells. Two important neurotransmitters responsible for mood regulation (amongst other functions) are serotonin and dopamine. These communication vehicles are made from amino acids, which in turn come from the protein we eat. Already the connection is established.
Since the good mood regulators are made from amino acids, it would be intuitive to think that eating a lot of protein is the perfect good mood diet. However, too much protein at once is not the way to go. The various types of amino acids compete with each other, which confuses the brain into wondering how to process all this input in such a short time frame.
Now you might wonder, “Where are the fruits and vegetables in this picture”? Well, you’re right. To keep things simple, let’s simply say that the ability for the brain to produce and store neurotransmitters is also dependent on certain vitamins mainly found in fruits and vegetables.
What, then, is the optimal brain food for good moods? Here are the four golden rules:
- Frequent meals. Eat lighter and more frequent meals to avoid giving too much to your body to process at once. If you overeat, your body is so busy digesting, less energy is left for other tasks.
- Complex Carbs. Eat complex carbohydrates like whole grains, oatmeal or brown rice. Complex carbs are “thought to be our most valuable energy nutrient” inform Marie Boyle and Sara Long, authors of Personal Nutrition. They also take longer to process completely, so they will keep you satiated longer and they facilitate a slow release of nutrients in the bloodstream and therefore to the brain, thus insuring a speed that is easy to process.
- Protein. Include moderate amounts of protein at every meal or snack. Proteins are mainly found in meat, fish, eggs, beans, dairy, nuts, and various soy products. Of course, the daily requirements will vary from person to person, depending on a wide host of specifics, but the recommendation is to have between 10 and 35% of daily caloric intake come from protein.
- Fruit and Vegetables. Top your meals off with generous servings of colorful fruits and/or vegetables. “Eat all your vegetables!” our mothers used to tell us!
We’ve all been told very many times that we should eat well if we want to be healthy, but the connection between food and mood is more recent. If you are in the habit of skipping breakfast in order to arrive at the office a few minutes earlier, you might want to revise your morning routine. “Try eating a hard-boiled egg for protein along with a bowl of plain oatmeal topped with fresh berries to boost your mood first thing in the morning”, suggests Registered Dietitian Lynn Grieger.
This resonates exactly with Martin Seligman’s advice, “Positive emotions are not only indicators but also producers of success.” I would challenge meal-skippers to see if following the above suggestions not only helps you maintain a better mood, but also your productivity level throughout the day. Don’t hesitate to try it out and send me your observations! Bon appétit!
Boyle, M.A. & Long, S. (2007). Personal Nutrition, Sixth Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Grieger, L. (May/June 2008). Your Mood: What’s Food Got to Do With It? Today’s Diet & Nutrition: Health, Nutrition, Fitness, Lifestyle, Beauty, Cuisine. Volume 5 Number 2, 60-63.
Seligman, M (2008). Address to Geelong Grammar School Educators, Australia.