Eating food we enjoy can cheer us up and make us feel content and relaxed. Conversely eating favourite foods can sometimes lead to negative feelings such as guilt and remorse. How can we minimise the negative and maximise the positive impact of food on our moods?
The pleasure principle
Eating is one of the pleasures of life and if possible we consume foods we enjoy and avoid those we dislike. It has been shown that eating favourite foods can stimulate the release of ß-endorphins, which are known to enhance mood (1). However the attractiveness of a food is not only related to its sensory properties, it also depends on how hungry you are, your previous experience of eating the food and the social circumstances in which it is consumed. In other words, the right type of food, at the right time, in the right company, makes us feel good.
Food cravings, or the urge to eat particular foods, are thought to be very common. Between 60 and 90% of people report food cravings depending on the population studied. Interestingly men and women link different attitudes and emotions to these cravings (2). Men typically interpret food cravings as being sparked by hunger, whereas women are more likely to link cravings with negative moods such as boredom and stress. Women are also more likely to experience negative feelings following indulgence in the craved food such as guilt and remorse.
Dr Peter Rogers, an experimental psychologist at the University of Bristol explains…. 'Often a craved food is a "forbidden food", like chocolate. If that food is consciously avoided, the desire to eat it gets stronger until the person finally gives in to temptation. After eating the food, guilt and remorse set in and the person resolves not to eat it again.
Are you feeling sleepy?
The effects of individual nutrients in foods have been widely studied but so far there is no clear agreement about the impact these nutrients have on mood. For example an equal number of studies show that carbohydrates make people feel relaxed and sleepy compared to those which can find no evidence that carbohydrates affect mood (3). It could be that different people react differently to these nutrients, which is what happens with caffeine. Sensitivity to caffeine seems to vary between individuals. Some people can drink several cups of caffeine-containing beverages over a few hours and feel no effects while others may experience stimulating effects after just one serving.
While there may be an interaction between food and our body chemistry, the impact of expectations relating to our eating behaviour cannot be underestimated. For example if consuming a particular food or drink normally improves our mood or alertness, it will do so because we expect it to, even if the active ingredient is missing! (4)
There is no doubt that the taste of food and the pleasure of eating can improve mood and well-being. But the powerful positive effects of eating 'naughty-but-nice foods' are often undermined by guilt. Dr Rogers has this advice to help us maximise the mood enhancing benefits of food.
'The most important thing is to get rid of any feelings of guilt related to eating. To do this people need to sort out their relationship with food and develop realistic healthy eating habits. This may include ways to manage the intake of favourite foods to maximise the pleasure they provide without overconsumption.'
Food Today will discuss the specific effects of various food components on mood in a future issue.
1. Drewnowski A (1997) Taste preferences and food intake. Annual Reviews of Nutrition. 17; 237-53
2. Weingarten HP & Elston D (1991) Food cravings in a college population. Appetite 17; 167-175
3. Reid M & Hammersley R (1999) The effects of carbohydrates on arousal. Nutrition Research Reviews 12; 3 -23
4. Flaten MA & Blumenthal TD (1999) Caffeine-associated stimuli elicit conditioned responses: an experimental model of the placebo effect Psychopharmacology 145; 105-112
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