This post was written for an originally appears on Thrive Global titled “How to choose the right foods for whatever mood your in.”
Eating our feelings is generally considered a negative thing. But what if it wasn’t? Our bodies are brilliant. They ask us directly for the nutrients they need to run well, and those needs are sent to us via changes in our moods and feelings. Often we’re just not tuned in—or listening.
Here’s how to decode your body’s signals to discover what nutrients your body and brain are asking for, and learn what foods to eat to get yourself back on an even keel.
Inability to Focus
If you’re having trouble focusing for long periods of time, your brain may be having difficulties regulating its own function due to a lack of protein. Protein is an essential nutrient for your body and brain. Protein builds muscle. It’s digested more slowly than carbohydrates, so it provides your body with sustained levels of glucose over an extended period of time.
More importantly however, protein is necessary in the creation of neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are mood and brain functionality regulators such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA. Neurotransmitters are made up of amino acids, and protein is the substance that our body breaks down to create amino acids.
Imagine you’re trying to construct a neighborhood. Neurotransmitters are the little houses, amino acids are the bricks, and vitamins and minerals the mortar. In this scenario, protein is the clay used to make the bricks.
You can’t build houses if you can’t make the bricks, and you can’t make neurotransmitters without amino acids. That means the first thing we need when we speak of mood regulation is enough protein in our diets to create our amino-acid building blocks.
Protein sources seems easy, but even meat eaters need to think quality. Animal protein sources raised on antibiotics, steroids and hormones can be less beneficial than we may think, as many of these substances inhibit the absorption of necessary minerals, and may bring about other health complications. For vegetarians and vegans, getting enough complete protein can also take some extra effort.
The best fallback protein source will always be rice and beans. A huge portion of the world’s population survives thanks to some combination of rice and legumes. Rice combined with any type of bean you like (including lentils or chickpeas) will get you all of the necessary protein to create any type of amino acids our bodies need. Rice and beans is the cheapest, most easily accessible protein source on the planet, and both are acceptable foods in nearly every major diet.
Other great protein sources: grass-fed meats, free-range poultry, wild fish, organic eggs, dairy and cheese. Best veggie protein sources include quinoa, buckwheat, soy, peas, nuts and nut butter, tempeh, hemp and chia seeds.
Feeling Irritable, Grumpy or Impatient
Brain cells can’t store energy, so they require a steady stream of glucose to keep running efficiently. If you’re feeling irritable, grumpy or impatient, it’s likely your glucose level (aka, your “blood sugar”) is getting low. Right now, you’re like a car that’s running out of gasoline. It’s time to fuel up if you want to keep running smoothly.
The question is, what are good fuel sources that will keep your body and brain in great running condition?
When low blood sugar hits and we’re feeling like less than our shiny happy selves, its very tempting to reach for a candy bar or that piece of cake in the break room.
While sugar snacks might momentarily solve the problem, they quickly create another. Refined sugar and refined carbohydrates cause your blood sugar to spike and then fall rapidly, leading to a second, and often more intense ‘low blood sugar’ situation.
If the sugar-solution is used again, this vicious cycle will continue — turning us into little drug addicts constantly on the hunt for another sugar fix.
The solution? Eat a healthy, complex carbohydrate snack.
Complex carbohydrates are found in foods such as unprocessed fruits and vegetables. Complex carbs increase your blood’s ability to bring oxygen to your brain cells and stabilize your glucose levels over a longer period of time.
Unfortunately wheat, even whole wheat, is not a complex carb. Whole wheat bread actually raises your blood glucose faster than a candy bar!
Starchy vegetables like potatoes, yams, carrots, beets, and winter squash are brain-friendly, complex carbohydrate snacks. Try to eat them before you begin to feel irritable, and you’ll avoid that late afternoon mood crash.
Fun Fact: Strategically eating complex carbohydrates on their own, without protein, is a little-known trick for maintaining the level of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin.
Stressed, Overwhelmed, Disorganized
Did you know there is a neurotransmitter that allows your brain to “turn off?” It’s called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), and it is responsible for stopping brain activity (for example, when we’re about to go to sleep.)
Magnesium is one of the key ingredients in constructing the neurotransmitter GABA. Without enough magnesium in your diet to build the GABA transmitters, your brain can get stuck in the “on” position, leaving you feeling overwhelmed, scatterbrained and unable to relax.
Magnesium is used in over 300 of our normal brain functions, from maintaining nerve function to keeping your heartbeat steady. It’s used in so many of our brain and body functions that we require a constant stream of magnesium rich foods in our diet to keep us healthy.
Symptoms of low magnesium levels might include insomnia, or never feeling rested even after a good night’s sleep. Severely low GABA can also contribute to stress-related diseases such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Getting the necessary amounts of magnesium isn’t that difficult for healthy eaters, yet due to changes in our diet and habits over the past century, upwards of 75% of Americans have subpar levels of magnesium.
For example: Soda, caffeinated beverages, refined sugar and alcohol are all inhibitors to magnesium absorption. Caffeine and refined sugars both increase the excretion of minerals such as magnesium. This means even if you’re reaching your recommended daily intake of magnesium, your likely to peeing it out with that third cup of coffee.
Stress is also a magnesium suck. As our body needs to use our magnesium stores to combat stress, any prolonged stressful situations can quickly put our magnesium levels back at zero.
When you’re feeling stressed, drawn too thin or unable to calm down, your best move is to fill up on magnesium-rich foods that will allow your body to relax and regenerate.
According to The US National Institute of Health (NIH), some of the best sources of magnesium per average serving size include almonds, spinach, cashews, shredded wheat cereal, soy milk, black beans, edamame, peanut butter, whole grain bread and avocado, while nutritionists in Canada added sunflower, squash and pumpkin seeds, black-eyed peas, tempeh, and Brazil nuts to that list.
Lacking Ideas, Uncreative and Unmotivated
Your brain is largely made of fat, 60% by weight. Yet for some reason, people still are villainizing fats, even though they are essential to proper brain function.
Take omega-3 fatty acids for example. Omega-3’s help your brain work better.
Omega-3 fatty acids can improve your memory, processing accuracy, reaction time, mood and general well-being. If you feel those things failing you might want to seek out some of these healthy fat sources to recharge your brain power.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and are important for cognitive and behavioral function. Omega-3 fatty acids build brain cell membranes, reduce brain inflammation, promote new brain cell formation and can improve your mood and memory.
Omega-3 deficiency can cause fatigue, poor memory, mood swings, depression and poor circulation. Intense menstrual cramps and premenstrual breast pain have also been reported.
There are two main omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). EPA is found in plant sources such as vegetable oil, green vegetables, nuts, and seeds, while DHA is found primarily in fatty fish like salmon.
DHA is also a structural component of the brain (specifically of the cerebral cortex) responsible for memory, language, abstraction, creativity, judgment, emotion and attention.
Research shows that having enough omega-3 fatty acids in our diets can reduce inflammation and may help lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. Proper omega-3 fatty acid intake can even helps protect against postpartum depression.
Get your required omega-3’s by eating plenty of avocado, nuts (walnuts, almonds, or their respective ‘mlik’ drinks) olives, seeds, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, and fatty fish like salmon, tuna, or mackerel.
Do you feel like your constantly dragging, even though you seem to be eating right? When nothing seems to combat your chronic fatigue, it might be time to consult your iron levels.
Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in North America, with symptoms including constant fatigue, pale skin, weakness and inability to maintain body temperature.
There are two type of iron in food: heme iron (animal based) and non-heme iron (plant based). Heme iron is easier for our bodies to absorb, which might lead you to believe that vegetarians and vegans are more likely to have iron deficiencies. This is actually untrue. Many plant based iron sources such as dried beans and dark green leafy vegetables are and even better source of iron a per calorie basis than meat.
Although non-heme iron on its own is less well absorbed, it’s absorption can be increased by as much as five times when eaten with Vitamin C. As many plant based iron sources also contain high amounts of Vitamin C, the amount of iron absorbed is actually quite high in most cases.
Best animal-based iron sources: liver, beef, lamb, clam, muscles, oysters.
Best vegetable-based iron sources: Molasses, raisins, spinach, apricots, peanut butter, walnuts, cashews, almonds, green beans, lentils, soybeans, tofu, tempeh, lima beans, quinoa, fortified cereals, brown rice, oatmeal, pumpkin, squash, pine, pistachio, sunflower, cashews, un-hulled sesame.
The Best Part
When your body is lacking essential vitamins or nutrients, it will ask for them even if you don’t need the caloric energy. This means that you’ll feel hungry when you’re really not. If you are getting all of the nutrients you need inside of your normal caloric intake, you’re much more likely to feel full longer as your giving your body all of the fuel it needs to run properly. This means if you’re eating well, and your nutrient needs in order, you’re very likely to lose weight without trying. Consider that when you’re feeling irritable, overwhelmed, or overtired at work — and swap out your sugar snacks for nutrient-packed food that will fuel your mission and keep you thriving.
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Selected References & Additional Reading
Ehrlich, Steven D. PhD, University of Maryland Medical Department; Omega-3 Fatty Acids, 2015
Higdon, Jane PhD, Oregon State Univeristy Micronutrient Information Center; Magnesium, 2001–2016
Barnes, Zahra, An invisible deficiency that could be harming your health, CNN.com, 2015
MacMillan, Amanda, The Best Foods for Every Vitamin and Mineral; Health.com, 2016
Alban, Dr. Pat & Deane, Be Brain Fit, 2016
Young, Charles E. Curcumin boosts DHA in the brain: Implications for the prevention of anxiety disorders, 2014.