While we are able to readily recognize the physical signs of eating unhealthy, we often overlook food’s link to our moods, thoughts, behaviors, and attention levels. Eating can be such a complex activity because both psychological and physiological factors influence the relationship between food and mood. Psychologically, we learn through reinforcement to expect delicious food, particularly fats and sugar, to elevate our moods, and conversely, are often guided by our emotional state when trying to determine what and how much to consume. Physiologically, the nutrients and chemicals in the food we eat have an effect on our neurons (nerve cells) and neurotransmitters (communicating chemicals that allow neurons to function properly), thereby influencing the way we feel, think, and behave.
Psychological Facets of Mood and Food
Food supplies us much more than essential nutrients, as it can be a source of intense pleasure, comfort, and satisfaction—all temporary mood states, but psychologically reinforcing nonetheless. When we come to expect certain types of food to make us feel good or relieve discomfort, we are likely to repeat the behavior, intensifying the cycle of expectations-reward (i.e., pleasure/relief). This can be a problem when the foods associated with contentment are ones loaded with unhealthy fats and excessive amounts of sugar and refined carbohydrates, as the (short-lived) positive result will lead to the repeated behavior of consuming unhealthy food.
From a very young age, high-fat, high-calorie, and sugar-laden foods are associated with rewards. Between holiday treats, birthday celebrations, and other special occasions, we are inundated with a plethora of (unnecessary) sweets, candy, and processed food, and carry these eating behaviors well into adulthood. Who has not rewarded themselves with a bowl (or pint) of ice cream or a piece (or two) of cake when celebrating a personal achievement, milestone, or any other happy event?
However, joyous occasions are not the only ones that bring on overindulgence. Given that high-fat and high-sugar foods elevate our moods, many of us reach for these foods also when we experience times of stress and sadness in an effort to relieve negative emotions. I’d bet Ben and Jerry’s probably makes most of its profits off breakups…
Physiological Processes of Food and Mood
There is a continuous and delicate interplay between the type, quality, and quantity of food we choose to eat and the levels of hormones, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals we possess. While there is a lot of truth to the advice ‘listen to your body’ to determine what it needs, the problem is that when our hormones are imbalanced, we often gravitate to those foods we have learned to associate with pleasure and relief from discomfort rather than to the ones that would provide us with the nutrients required to achieve equilibrium again.
How Hormones Affect Our Appetite
Cortisol is one of the chief hormones linking psychological distress with physiological changes and manifestations. When we experience chronic stress, depression, and sleep deprivation, our cortisol levels rise and increase the enzymatic activity responsible for promoting abdominal fat storage. To make matters worse, when feeling distressed, we tend to make unhealthy food choices, such as those containing refined carbohydrates; and as a result, are more likely to experience an increase in waist circumference and overall fat accumulation.
Leptin and Ghrelin
Leptin and Ghrelin are two hormones that play a major role in energy balance. Leptin is a facilitator of the long-term management of energy balance, suppressing food intake and thus inducing weight loss. On the other hand, psychological stress raises ghrelin, a fast-acting hormone responsible for stimulating appetite.