The relationship human beings have with food is a complex one. There’s a growing body of evidence, based on various studies around the world, that we really are what we eat. Our diet doesn’t just fuel our bodies, but has a significant impact on our energy, mood and brain function.
“It also influences our emotions,” says Cath Day, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in SA.
“What we eat affects how we feel. For example, regularly eating foods that have a high nutrient content can improve your wellbeing, but too much caffeine – especially in people who aren’t used to it – can cause irritability and headaches.”
She adds that the relationship works both ways: how we feel at a particular time often influences what we choose to eat. “Consider what you reach for when you’re having a bad day – is it usually high-calorie foods such as chocolate or pizza? Many people make the mistake of associating rich foods with pleasure and reward, and plain foods with deprivation.”
A guide to good-mood foods
Serotonin is often referred to as the “happy hormone”, because if you have enough of it in your body, it can improve your feeling of physical and emotional wellbeing. For serotonin to be made in adequate amounts, you need to eat a protein called tryptophan, which is found in sources such as lean red meat, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and bananas.
Carbohydrates are also important, as they help carry the serotonin into your brain – which is why Day suggests eating a balance of lean proteins and healthy, carbohydrate-rich foods (wholewheat bread and pasta, brown rice, etc).
Dopamine’s also an important chemical messenger in the body. It plays a role in reward, motivation, memory, attention and even regulating body movements. When dopamine’s released in large amounts, it creates feelings of pleasure and reward.
However, Day says that while consuming foods that contain dopamine can improve your mood, there’s evidence to indicate how long that positive response lasts – and it’s important to remember that the effect of the food may differ from person to person.
The following foods have feel-good properties: