Have you ever had one of those days where every little thing irritates you—from the sound of your workmate chewing their lunch to the guy on the bus who slightly bumped you? If you can’t figure out why and it’s not PMS or a crappy night’s sleep, it could have something to do with what you are eating. What we put into our bodies can affect the balance of some neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and other hormones that can play a large role in our mood and appetite. We asked our favourite personal trainer, Kayla Itsines, to give us the lowdown on how food affects your mood.
If you’re someone that likes to munch on highly processed foods, such as lollies and chips, then this could be a reason why you’re feeling down in the dumps. Without going into too much detail, carbohydrates (glucose) is our brain and muscles’ preferred source of energy, so our body works super hard to ensure that the amount of glucose in the blood (also known as blood sugar) remains consistent. This is so that these organs and our other cells can continue to function at their best all day, every day.
Because refined carbohydrates are quickly broken down by the body, they can cause our blood sugar levels to temporarily skyrocket. This causes the body to release a hormone called insulin, which tells your body’s cells to start absorbing this glucose and return blood sugar levels back to normal. As this process of breaking down and absorbing glucose can be quite fast, most people tend to feel hungry just a few hours later and the cycle continues. It’s these dramatic ups and downs in blood sugar levels that can explain why we might be our usual selves one minute and then transition into the Hulk the next!
Fortunately, there are a number of ways that you can avoid this blood sugar “rollercoaster”. The most obvious one is to eat less refined carbohydrates and more complex ones (such as oats, wholemeal bread, pasta etc.) in combination with protein at each of your main meals. Not only can these foods provide your body with more nutrients, but they also release energy more slowly. Also, rather than leaving big gaps between your meals, I recommend eating smaller, more regular ones. This might mean packing a couple of extra snacks for you to eat between each of your main meals.
These small changes can help your blood sugar levels to remain more stable throughout the day, which can help the whole “I feel like Oscar the Grouch” thing.
Do you sometimes get anxious and can’t figure out why? If you are a coffee lover, this may be your answer! As most of you know, coffee contains caffeine, which is a type of stimulant. When we are tired and in need of sleep, our brain can release neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that tell our body that it’s time to rest. Stimulants, such as caffeine, often work by getting in the way of this process, allowing you to feel more alert and focussed.
The one thing that many people don’t know is that caffeine isn’t just found in coffee, it can also be found in other drinks (such as energy drinks) and chocolate. So if you drink multiple cups of coffee, eat lots of chocolate or chug down several energy drinks a day, this can be why you feel jittery and anxious.
Now I know cutting out coffee is easier said than done, so before you raise your hands in protest, hear me out. If you’re constantly relying on coffee for “pick me up”, then you might need to take a step back and assess what it is that’s causing you to feel tired in the first place—are you not getting enough sleep? Are you not eating foods that provide you with enough energy to get through the day?
If you genuinely like the taste of coffee, then try switching to decaf and see if this helps! If you want a good substitute, I like drinking green tea as it still gives me energy, but also contains plenty of beneficial antioxidants.
As well as giving you a quick burst of energy, have you ever noticed that “comfort foods”, such as burgers, pizza, chocolate or ice-cream sometimes help soothe your mood? This is because they can cause your body to release endorphins, which are “feel good” brain chemicals that help you to feel happy.
The trouble with this is that this “happy feeling” can be highly addictive. Picture this, if you are feeling upset and you eat some chocolate then feel better, it can be really hard not to want chocolate each time you get upset. Many people don’t always see the correlation between their feelings and what they eat and it can lead to unwanted weight gain without you even realising it.
Furthermore, craving “comfort foods” is almost like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it may make you feel better temporarily, but then in a few hours you may experience the dreaded blood sugar crash mentioned above that can lead to grumpiness and irritability. This can easily become a vicious cycle that is super hard to get out of.
When it comes to emotional eating, my biggest tip is to be aware of your eating patterns. Next time you are stressed, upset or angry, take note of what you eat. Once you have recognised this behaviour, you can replace it with more positive ones, such as going for a walk outside, reading or calling a friend.
As you can see, there are many ways that food can affect your mood. However, I do think it is important that you take this information with a pinch of salt. Everybody is different and therefore their bodies react differently to certain foods. We can all agree that we generally feel better when we eat well, so treat your body kindly! Don’t ever deprive yourself, but also be aware that some foods can have some not so pleasant side effects. If you have been struggling with any of the above, checking your diet could be a good place to start.