Mind, Body & Foods by Dr. Scott Josephson, M.S., R.D.

Did you know that the foods you choose could potentially influence your behavior and emotional well-being? That means there may be some truth to the adage “you are what you eat” seeing as how several foods effect brain chemistry and enhance, improve or alter your body.

Simply stated, upon food consumption and breakdown, the brain releases chemicals (neurotransmitters) known as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Serotonin is a calming and relaxing chemical, while dopamine and norepinephrine are responsible for alertness, excitement, action and mental acuity. Neurotransmitters tell us when we are full, if food is too hot or if it doesn’t taste good. Some nutrients in foods are precursors to the neurotransmitters, and decide how much of the neurotransmitter is produced. That being said, it’s a good idea to understand a few basic principles.

Certain foods act like a physiological switch due to the nutrients in the food. It is the combination of the protein, carbohydrate and fat (macronutrients) content, and the vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) that affect your metabolism and mood. For example, your mood can be related to a deficit of nutrients. It might be as simple as an inadequately balanced diet, or it could be that one nutrient triggered a mood reaction.

Foods such as fiber, oil-rich fish, fruits, vegetables and water can stimulate neurotransmitters and adjust the chemical balance in our brains to help us feel better. Several foods allow you to balance your emotional and mental health while providing the right fuel for performance. This mood-food connection is an intricate combination of complex physiological and psychological interactions. That being said, can food alter your mood?


With all that modern science knows about the food/mind/mood connection, you can select foods that will power your brain, modify your moods, and perhaps make you more effective and motivated. Imagine choosing one type of food to alleviate anxiety, another to bolster brainpower, or yet another to curb your urge to splurge on a donut? A new field of pioneering nutrition research, often referred to as the study of food and mood, is confirming what many of us have always suspected. What and when we eat can affect our mind, mood, the tendency to pile on pounds and even the quality of our lives. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology first linked food with mood when they found that sugar and starch in carbohydrate foods boosted a powerful brain chemical called “serotonin.” Soon they linked serotonin and other neurotransmitters (substances that pass information from cell to cell in the brain) to our every mood, emotion or craving. They noted that eating carbohydrate-rich foods elevated serotonin levels, which help you feel more relaxed and calm.

Carbohydrates – A key chemical in food tied to your mood is serotonin. Higher levels of serotonin influence your concentration, keep you calmer and help keep you from being depressed. Low serotonin levels may increase your appetite and cause intense cravings. Avoid this horror show by consuming plenty of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, fiber cereals, rice, and potatoes and minimize your processed intake.

Fat – Eating too little fat can make you feel grouchy. Adequate quantities of fat increase endorphins (opiate-like chemicals that are the “feel good” neurotransmitters) and make you happy. To help keep your moods on an even keel, choose healthy fats such as monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, almonds and avocados.

Additionally, the Omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood especially salmon, lobster, shrimp, walnuts and olive oil may also help to reduce depression. Contrary to popular belief, tinned tuna is not a good source of omega-3’s since the canning process reduces the tuna’s fat content.

Protein – Protein increases alertness and helps give you more energy. Protein contains an amino acid called tyrosine, which increases dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine levels responsible for alertness and excitement. Low levels help contribute to anxiety. Eggs, low fat cheese, milk, tofu, lean meats, fish, legumes and turkey trigger the release of endorphins that increase the release of dopamine.

Low Fat Diets – Can make you depressed. Research has linked diets that drastically cut down on all calories and fat are associated with depression and possibly metabolic syndromes. You can avoid the highs and lows of mood and energy associated with fluctuating blood sugar levels by choosing foods that are digested slowly. Lower glycemic foods include vegetables, whole grains, oats, low fat yogurt and peanuts.

Caffeine – Increases mental alertness, concentration and can improve performance, however, too much caffeine (varies per person) has been associated with anxiety, cravings, depression, emotional instability, insomnia, mood swings, nervousness, PMS and a downer during withdrawal. Hmm….Starbucks anyone?

Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, Folic Acid (Folate) and Zinc – are all essential good mood nutrients needed to make serotonin from the tryptophan found in meat, fish and beans. Minerals such as folic acid and selenium are involved in mood related disorders. A lack of folic acid in the diet may be linked to depression. Oranges, turkey, asparagus, beets, soybeans and green leafy vegetables, like spinach, are good sources of folic acid. Too little selenium in the diet can make you grouchy, anxious and depressed. Good sources of selenium include whole grains, tomatoes, eggs, broccoli, tuna, and sunflower seeds.

Chocolate – We possibly crave high fat, sugar-laden foods to experience the blues-bursting benefits of endorphins. These findings could explain cravings for chocolate creating a sweet-and-creamy concoction that’s hard to resist. Composed of a 50 percent fat and 50 percent sugar content plus an endorphin-releasing substance called phenylethylamine, chocolate may offer the perfect blend of ingredients both to stimulate and soothe at the same time. The fat and sugar in chocolate can raise both serotonin and endorphin levels. This helps explain why some women may crave chocolate before and during their cycle.

While most researchers agree that a physiological switch occurs when we eat certain foods, not all agree on the cause. The chemical cornucopia in our brain isn’t always easy to understand. In the world of science, this means it’s hard to establish a direct link between our brain chemistry and our physical or emotional response. Choosing certain foods may not be about mood, but more about your body’s adjustment to its nutrient content or perhaps abstract feelings that drive you to choose certain foods. Food and mood research is still in its infancy, however, given what science has currently revealed it’s imperative to determine what information is practical to use in our everyday lives. The overall goal is to use your eating habits to gain more control over your moods and in the process enhance your daily performance. Now pick and choose wisely and go get some food!

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