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Stress Eating: How Food Affects our Mood & Mental Health

Apr 21, 2020 | Lifestyle, Nutrition, Wellness | 5 comments

How Food Affects our Mood & Mental Health | Project BQ: Marathon Training 1 and 2

Last month I recorded a podcast talking about Stress Eating, and the effect of food on mood and mental health with Tanya Kumar. Obviously some of the things we discussed, like going out for pizza with friends and office snacks (for most people), are not relevant currently, however the advice given can translate to our current situation.

How does food affect our mood and mental health? 

There has been a huge amount of research into our choices of food and our mental health and well being. In this blog we talked about the role of the gut and the link between our gut and our brain. There was evidence to show a decrease in depression rates in people who had diets rich in fibre

For a variety of reasons, fibre makes us feel better because it aids digestion. People who have digestion problems know that can put you in a bad mood. It can increase anxiety too because when your bowels are playing up, it can increase anxiety around eating.

Carbohydrates help us concentrate and focus, so getting an adequate supply of carbohydrates will allow glucose to go into our blood and then into our brain where it impacts our mood. Getting a steady flow of slow-releasing carbohydrates throughout the day is going to have a positive effect on your mood.

Dietary change can change the structure of our brain with knock on effects on our behaviour.

Vitamins and minerals are where we get most of our nutrients from. If we are not getting enough nutrient rich foods due to a poorly balanced diet, it’s going to affect our mood. For example, lack of iron can make us really weak and tired. A lack of B vitamins can make us feel tired and irritable. Some research has shown that a lack of folate can increase our chance of feeling depressed. Likewise, a lack of selenium can increase our chance of feeling depressed. 

We often think of glucose feeding our muscles, and actually our brain is just a muscle that we need to feed to be able to get a good output. That can explain why, when we’re tired, we often reach for high carb food to try to help us focus and feel more awake. We go for sugary foods where the glucose/energy can be quickly absorbed into our blood stream.

Maybe that’s why I personally struggle with stress eating. This week at work has been so stressful and I found myself reaching for things like chips for lunch and far too many cookies. I get into this cycle where I eat crap and I feel like crap. It’s so hard to break. 

How Food Affects our Mood & Mental Health

Why do we get ourselves into the ‘eat crap/feel crap’ cycle? Are there some strategies to help break the cycle? 

It’s all to do with emotional eating which is when we feed our emotions rather than our actual hunger.

You do it without even thinking. People use food emotionally for a number of different reasons, like dealing with a difficult emotion or to distract them from something difficult that is going on in their lives. Or general boredom. 

To try to break these cycles, you need to observe yourself.

Do you eat when you are sad, angry or upset? Do you eat in response to certain people or situations? Or do you eat at certain times or places which trigger you to have those food cravings? A lot of people for example, at 3.00 or 4.00 pm in the office get hit with ‘choc o’clock’, that afternoon slump when you crave something sugary – and often unhealthy! You need to observe yourself and create coping strategies around that. So if you feel those emotions, could you do something else like go for a walk, listen to a podcast or music or put that energy into something you really enjoy. Particularly in this current situation where a lot of people are working from home and might have a little more flexibility in their ‘work day’.

If that is not an option, to go for a walk for example,  then  preplanning is key. Bringing snacks that will boost your mood, but also keep you sustained for longer than a chocolate biscuit….Energy bars made from natural ingredients such as Nakd bars or Eat Natural bars are good. Fruit and nuts are good, plus a little chocolate treat as it is about balance. If you restrict yourself completely, you are probably going to fail and feel guilty or anxious like ‘Why did I eat that?’ . 

Try this Pretzel Bark Recipe for a more filling chocolate hit! 

Many people feel guilty straight after eating ‘unhealthy’ things which can take away the enjoyment of eating. How can we let go of that guilt? 

Food should not be seen as a reward or a punishment. It should be an experience you enjoy. A lot of people have this mindset ‘oh, I’ve eaten so badly today, I haven’t done any exercise. Tomorrow, I’m going to starve myself and not eat anything’. Or the opposite ‘I’ve eaten really well today, I’m can binge out over the weekend’. It’s a vicious cycle and one that’s hard to get out of. You should just try to allow yourself things in moderation and find a way to become more mindful of what you are eating. By doing this, that pressure of having to eat perfectly all the time will go away. 

Picking up on that mindfulness idea, I have found that using the hunger – fullness scale to be very helpful . The idea is that you eat when you are around a 3 or 4 hunger level, rather than let yourself get super hungry which is when you are going to pick the high sugar, high fat foods. Then stopping when you are at fullness level of 6 or 7, so that you are not overeating. 

It’s easier to make healthy eating decisions when you’re not super hungry.

For example, making your packed lunch the evening before work, say after dinner, you’re going to make a ‘better’ choice than if you wait until 1pm and you’re starving. It’s even more important with snacks, because those are the ones which you can grab so easily, typically at that high hunger point, and are often high in sugar or salt. Preplanning meals and snacks is massively beneficial.

Obviously, overall it depends what your goal is. If you’re looking to lose weight, lead a healthier lifestyle, then preplanning is very helpful. But also, you need to let go of the guilt, perhaps by putting no restrictions on your diet. ‘Moderation in everything’ on your diet is also going to help that removal of guilt.

Just because you’ve had a less nutritious breakfast, it doesn’t mean the day is a write off. Make a nutritious lunch choice. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. One has to remember there is the social aspect to food, the emotional aspect as well as the nutritious aspect to eating which sometimes, can swing out of balance. 

It’s only the behaviours we are doing over and over again which are a problem, and which you might need to look for the triggers and plan strategies to avoid them.


Why do you think we have such an emotional connection to the food we eat? 

From a very young age, we connect food with emotion and social interactions. Whether sad, happy, celebrating, commiserating, lonely, angry etc food is often used to support or cope with these emotions and circumstances.

There are emotions that society has put to certain foods. We all associate chocolate with boosting our mood. It’s probably less so the chemicals within that food which are boosting our moods, it’s more the connection we have made with that food that this food is going to make me happy, so I’ll eat it. Birthday cake is another example of food which feels good because of the family and friends surrounding it.

Coffee too – people begin to think they can’t function without it. It’s another kind of attachment people put onto certain food and drinks that create that emotional connection over time. It may not be the chemicals in the food or drink. So if you drank a decaf coffee without knowing it was decaf, it might still get you up in the morning – potentially! However, caffeine does give you benefits. It increases alertness but it is more just that emotional connection.

Emotional eating comes from feeding our feelings rather than hunger. If you have trouble managing your emotions, you might use food to manage them.

How Food Affects our Mood & Mental Health

What role do hormones play in our food choices? Are there artificial foods or additives/chemicals in them which override our own hormone levels to make us over eat or under eat our food choices and our feelings of being full. 

Our hormones can affect our food choices, but our food choices can also affect our hormones.

The stress hormone is cortisol, when that increases, we tend to reach for high fat, high sugar foods to satisfy an emotion or help deal with a difficult situation.

There are two hormones related to giving us the feeling of hunger and the feeling of fullness. Ghrelin is the hunger hormone, and it gives our mind the signal to start eating.  Leptin is the fullness hormone which gives us the signal to stop eating. Over time, if we are putting high fat, high sugar foods into our body, we can impair that hormone signalling. We have leptin resistance and insulin resistance. Our body adapts to produce more fat cells, more leptin so that we feel less full after eating.

An analogy is like eating Pringles crisps: Once you pop, you can’t stop! On the other hand, an avocado – it’s much easier to stop eating when you were full!

Really palatable foods are created that way, and they make us ignore our leptin signals telling us that we are getting fuller and we just keep going because they are releasing ‘feel good’ hormones, like serotonin.

When we eat artificial foods, does that affect our hormones? 

Artificial foods tend to be highly processed, and have substances added to them like sugar, salt, fat. They may have been processed in a laboratory and had flavour enhancers or food colouring added to them, and they are designed to be cost effective and extra tasty (usually due to a number of chemical additives).

Poor quality foods can affect our hormone signalling by disrupting it. The sugar in them can give us spikes in insulin, the hormone responsible for moving sugar out into our bloodstream and into our cells. When insulin is elevated continuously over a long period of time, it can develop a resistance which leads to a lot of health related and diet related diseases such as Type 2 diabetes. 

Should we be cutting out processed foods all together or can we find space for them in our diet under the enjoyment and moderation mantra?

My philosophy is to eat real food 90% of the time so there is some wriggle room for processed food.

It reduces pressure on ourselves so we don’t feel guilty or put us in a bad mood because no foods are off limits, as this can potentially lead to mental health issues. It allows you to enjoy everything and anything… in moderation.

However, it’s worth being mindful that if you are going to continuously eat those processed foods over a long period of time, it is going to noticeably impact your health. You need to find the balance for you and your lifestyle. When you are in your daily routine, like trying to preplan, bringing your meals into work and trying to eat as well as you can. When you go out in the evening, or on holiday or out with friends, let yourself enjoy and treat yourself. Sometimes, there isn’t an option. For example, when travelling, perhaps in more remote locations, there can be little choice. So control the controllables and don’t stress the rest! 

When we make these choices to have the potentially more artificial foods, some of them can make us feel good for a short period of time. Why are there some foods that do that to us?  

Fast foods are generally poor nutritionally, high in sugar, salt, saturated and trans fats and preservatives. But they are highly tasty and so we tend to eat them quite quickly because they are quickly broken down in our mouths, don’t need much chewing and that activates reward censors in our brain really rapidly. We get that short term sense of feeling amazing but there is little actual nutrition so it doesn’t keep you full, or your blood sugar level for a long time.

Excessive sodium intake can prevent us from retaining fluids, so we feel massively dehydrated. That combination of poor nutrients and dehydration makes us feel bad afterwards. Plus we can feel guilt of having overeaten because of the chemicals overriding the fullness feeling doesn’t help. 

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Are there any foods which can actually make us feel better, like good mood foods? 

90% of the receptors for the mood regulating hormone, serotonin, are in our gut. Your mood is completely controlled by your brain, so foods which boost your brain health will boost your mood too.

Fatty Fish – eg salmon, mackerel, sardines are high in Omega 3.

Dark Chocolate – it actually has similar chemicals to cannabis, and has happy vibes 🙂

Fermented foods – eg yogurt, kimchi, keffir and sauerkraut aid the gut and can help boost your mood.

Oats – high in fibre and can help stabilise blood sugar levels

Berries – rich in antioxidants, can reduce inflammation in the brain

Nuts and seeds – high in tryptophan, a chemical responsible for producing serotonin (our mood regulating hormone)

Beans and lentils – great source of fibre and B vitamins, these increase serotonin and dopamine

Are there any foods you would really try to avoid, even with the idea of moderation, that you know are going to impact our mental health negatively?

Fizzy, high sugar energy drinks are a massive one that we should really try to avoid. They are full of high sugar syrups which are going to cause inflammation in your brain and put you into a really low, rubbish mood.

I’d also try to limit/avoid other sugar free products because they tend to have a lot of harmful sweetness in them, which are going to give you a false high followed by a crash and increased feelings of anxiety, irritability and a generally low feeling.

Alcohol is another one. It is a depressant which lowers our levels of serotonin. In the long term, regular and excessive drinking is going to massively impact your mood. It’s important to be aware of the reason you are drinking… if it is to socialise or celebrate, then moderate drinking can bring you enjoyment and it’s fun, that’s one thing. But if it’s something that you are turning to relax, or deal with a difficult situation then perhaps you need to identify the balance between those two scenarios. If you are using alcohol as a kind of drug to take your mind away from something else, then maybe you need to be thinking of other solutions like going for a run or yoga class.

Do you have any strategies for people who are wanting to cut back on drinking? 

A starting point might be to observe yourself. When are the key times that I am over drinking? For example, on Tuesday evenings, do I really need to have that drink? If you are drinking every evening, then maybe cut out two evenings to start with and slowly increase it. Having those days off allows your body and mental state to repair. After all,  NHS guidelines say we should have two alcohol free days a week, even if you were having just one drink a day.

What would be your top tips for people going away from reading this who want to make changes to their diet? 

Just to be aware that what you put into your gut system is massively connected to your brain. Don’t overly restrict yourself but eat a diet that’s full of whole grain foods, fruit and veg which are going to give you the vitamins, minerals and fibre that you need to have a healthy gut which will lead to a healthy brain. It’s really about finding a balance. Eat well 90% of the time and enjoy those treats when you have them 10% of the time! 

Listen to more of the COOK EAT RUN podcast here.


    • charlotte

      Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it!

  1. Cheryl

    An interesting read! As someone who is normally very chilled I have found myself becoming increasingly irritable (even though I know this may be down to the current environment, I will definitely look into my Vitamin B consuption!)
    Love the Blog!

    • charlotte

      Thanks Cheryl, I would say if you’re usually pretty chilled it is probably due more to lockdown, added stress but worth looking at whether your eating/caffeine habits have changed at all recently?!


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