Food makes us feel good. It tastes great and nourishes our bodies. When eaten in too little or excessive quantities, however, our physical appearance can be altered, which can create negative feelings toward food.
By learning how to make better choices, you might be able to control compulsive eating, binging, and gaining weight. In addition to better appetite control, feelings of calmness, high energy levels, and/or alertness might also be experienced from the foods you eat.Food and its affect on mood-modifying brain chemicals
Aside from providing the nutrients and energy your body needs to function, food also has an influence on appetite and moods. Research shows that certain foods affect powerful mood-modifying brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are made from the foods we eat and are present in higher concentrations after meals than between them.
Of the many neurotransmitters, only a few affect appetite:Serotonin
— This is a chemical released after eating carbohydrates (sugars and starches). It enhances calmness, improves mood, and lessens depression. Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. High levels of serotonin control appetite and satisfy cravings.Dopamine
- and norepinephrine — These are chemicals released after eating protein (meats, poultry, dairy, legumes) They enhance mental concentration and alertness. These neurotransmitters come from the amino acid tyrosine.Food cravings
At one time or another, all of us have experienced a food craving — that strong desire for a specific food. It might be for chocolate, popcorn, cake, or pizza. Food cravings are perfectly normal and actually might help people feel better by improving moods, calming nerves, and boosting energy. Cultural influences, taste, and emotional attachment define the foods we crave. Whatever the food is, the more you ignore the craving, the more it intensifies. Therefore, never ignore your cravings. Instead, eat a small amount of what you crave.
Women are twice as likely than men to feel good when they fulfill their food cravings. Usually these cravings are for foods containing sugar and fat. Most women experience food cravings more during pre-menstruation, pregnancy, at the transition of menopause, during the fall and winter months, or while on restrictive weight loss diets.
The number one reported food craved by women is chocolate. That's not a surprise since it contains sugar and fat, which increases serotonin levels. This causes a calming affect.
The more you ignore a food craving or deny yourself a particular food, the more you want it. Abstinence and restriction intensify a food craving, which can lead to binge eating.Food binging
Food binging is when a person eats large amounts of food in short periods of time. Usually, the foods are high in carbohydrates and fat. Binge eating has been associated with anger, anxiety, sadness, depression, and irritability. In addition, it is not uncommon for people to binge once they stop dieting to compensate for all the times they missed eating their favorite foods.How can food cravings be managed?
The best way to manage a food craving is to eat a small portion of the craved food shortly after the craving begins. This will satisfy the craving, prevent overeating, and enhance your mood. For example, one Hershey's Kiss might satisfy your chocolate craving and is only 25 calories.What food choices are best?
What you choose for a meal or snack can make a difference in how much you eat or how soon you will desire to eat again. Eating a high carbohydrate meal or snack will quickly satisfy your appetite, and you might desire less food for the next meal. Foods high in protein will increase your alertness.
Carbohydrate food choices should be high in fiber, so you might feel more calm and your mood might be improved. Choose foods such as whole grain breads and cereals, potatoes with skin, brown rice, whole grain pasta, fresh fruits, or vegetables. Candy might also be chosen, but is not nutritious and has a short-term effect on calmness. If you wake up during the night and feel hungry, try a carbohydrate snack.
The best time to eat a high protein meal is when you need to stay alert or your mental performance needs to be at its best. For those who work during the day, a high protein lunch or afternoon snack can increase your concentration. Eating a high protein dinner can increase alertness for those who work evenings or plan to attend a late social function. Choose items such as lean meat, skinless poultry, fish, low-fat tofu, legumes, or non-fat yogurt, milk, or cheese.
If you are like most people, you will probably eat a combination of carbohydrate, protein, and fat during one meal. Since the neurotransmitter for protein (norepinephrine) dominates after eating a meal containing carbohydrate, fat, and protein, you might feel more alert but your craving might not be satisfied. Therefore, you might eat more or crave foods high in carbohydrate and fat. This will increase serotonin levels in the brain and satisfy your craving. Remember, however, that fat should not exceed 30 percent of your total daily calories.Recommended Readings
Waterhouse, D. 1995. Why Women Need Chocolate. New York: Hyperion.
Pawlak, L. 1995. Appetite: The Brain-Body Connection. Personal communication to:
Laura Pawlak, 1051 Monteray Blvd., Herosa Beach, CA 90254.
Somer, E. 1999. Food and Mood: The Complete Guide to Eating Well and Feel Your Best. 2nd Edition, New York: Henry Holt & Company, Incorporated.
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