Noyes News and Events

January 7, 2018

Food and Mood

Hippocrates is often credited with saying, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”  While there is some controversy as to whether or not, he actually said this, no one disputes its significance.  Hippocrates was one of the first to understand the interplay of diet, environment, habits, and health.  He grasped that illnesses were not “punishment” from the gods but rather a bi-directional consequence of our physical bodies and the world around us.  Fast forward to 2018 and medical professionals are still studying the complex interaction between food, mood, and disease.  In 2014, a University of Iowa researcher wrote an overview of the complicated nature of biological factors linking food intake, mood, brain signaling, and obesity.  The head scientist connected the dots between our food intake, our brain’s reaction to the food, obesity, and the resulting moods of those relations.

This research is particularly important given the levels of obesity, disease, and mood disorders in the U.S.  Since 1999, there has been a significant increase in obesity.  Almost twenty years ago, 30.5 % of the adult population and 13.9% of youth were obese. Now, 37.7% of adults and 17.2% of youth are obese.  For certain demographics, the numbers are even higher; for example, 38.3% of women and 40% of middle-aged persons are obese.   Being overweight puts one at greater risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, joint problems, gallstones, and other conditions.  In addition, research now reveals that obesity and mood are bi-directional.  Mood affects what we eat and what we eat affects our mood.  While not solely responsible, the food we ingest plays a powerful role in our physical and mental health.

How does this happen?  Here is the basic breakdown.

  1. We eat.  We eat food for a variety of reasons – hunger, genes, habit, cost, taste, culture/ethnicity, social, stress and emotions (think comfort foods or alcohol).

  1. Some people find it hard to stop eating even though they are not hungry.  Such behavior activates the brain reward center and alters the brain structure.  

  1. Overtime, food starts to act like a drug creating an “addiction.”  We may crave comfort foods.  The repetitive eating of comfort foods, rich in carbohydrates, high-fats, and sugar (think any kind of junk food like soda, chips, ice cream,TV dinners) leads to obesity.  

  1. Obesity produces visceral fat, which is excess abdominal fat.  Otherwise known as “deep” fat, visceral fat is stored further underneath the skin than “subcutaneous” belly fat. This gel-like fat wraps around major organs including the liver, pancreas and kidneys.

  1. Large visceral fat accumulations in the abdomen act like a separate organ.  The fat tissue spews out nasty chemicals that inflame our systems.  This creates metabolic disorder, a condition that effects our physical health and mental health.  In simple terms, it throws off the hormones that balance our system.  Everything from insulin levels to feel good brain chemicals are out of whack when we don’t provide our bodies with the proper nutrition.  We need the right fuel to run the engine.  Fruits, vegetables, fish, chicken, beans, and whole grains all contain favorable chemicals or provide the building blocks for beneficial hormones.  Cheese puffs and potato chips do not.  

  1. Numerous studies suggest that chronic ingestion of junk and processed foods promotes negative emotions such as depression and anxiety.  According the 2014 report, depressed individuals show preference for and consume palatable “comfort foods” as way to alleviate negative feelings.  On a short-term basis, these foods may provide some relief; however, chronic consumption of calorically rich, low nutrient foods ultimately leads to obesity, which in turn promotes vulnerability to depression and anxiety.  

  1. This all sets the scene for a continuous vicious cycle of overeating, weight gain, and depressed mood.  

Our bodies are complex organisms.  Understanding the underlying mechanisms of nutrition, physical, and mental health will take years of research.  In the meantime, more than enough studies confirm that part of the healthy body and mind prescription is good nutrition.  A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains is crucial for optimal health.

If your organization is interested in learning more about eating right for life, contact Lorraine Wichtowski.  Lorraine is a community health educator at UR Medicine Noyes Health in Dansville, NY.  She can be contacted at (585) 335-4327 or lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org.