J.B. MacKinnon is a food writer, science communicator and cookbook author. He is also a doctor of nutritional science and a practicing naturopathic physician. While he doesn’t like to play the food police, he does have strong opinions about certain practices that are common among the Paleo community.
Cultureofhealth.com is a place where writers and readers can share ideas in the field of healthy living. It’s a project that I’ve started with a group of friends and we’re hoping to contribute something unique and helpful to the health community.
I received a call from my friend Bobby Cappuccio a few weeks ago. Bobby is a well-known fitness industry speaker and consultant, and he wanted to interview me for his website, PT (Personal Training) on the Net. Our topic of discussion was food and mood.
He wanted to discuss about how food might affect our mood and behavior in particular. More importantly, he wanted to discuss how we might regain control of our food decisions when we’re feeling out of control.
Finally, the interview went well, so I’ve included the transcript below. Everyone interested in health and fitness, from leisure exercisers to personal trainers, will find some useful information here. Take a look at it.
Bobby: Today, I’m speaking with Dr. John Berardi, who is regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities on exercise nutrition.
Dr. Berardi’s research has appeared in a variety of textbooks, peer-reviewed academic journals, and popular exercise and nutrition books and periodicals.
Dr. Berardi has also worked with over 70,000 clients in over 100 countries through his organization. These clients include everyone from casual exercisers to professional athletes.
Dr. Berardi is also the creator of the highly regarded Certification program, which is a sport and exercise nutrition mentorship program for elite fitness professionals.
And today I’m here to talk with him about how food affects our emotional states as well as our behaviors.
Thank you for joining me, Dr. Berardi.
Berardi, Dr.: Bobby, no problem. It’s always a pleasure, and I’m looking forward to sharing some fascinating knowledge regarding food and mood with you.
Feelings and food
Bobby: Let’s get started with that, shall we? We often hear about how food might affect our mood, but how does what we eat actually relate to how we feel?
Berardi, Dr.: Bobby, it was originally considered that the only link between one’s emotions and food was some people’s tendency to eat when they were depressed or stressed. Recent research, however, has painted a very different picture.
We now know that the things we eat might create certain mood states. So, how’s it going?
Food, on the other hand, can affect our mood in three ways:
1. Food aids the brain’s production of mood-altering chemicals known as neurotransmitters.
2. Food affects blood sugar levels, which affects alertness and energy levels.
3. Food evokes memories of prior emotions and experiences.
I’m not going to go too technical here. Instead, let us look at some examples. Let’s say you’re fatigued and it’s around 3 p.m. In that situation, a high-protein snack would be ideal.
Tyrosine, a kind of amino acid found in protein, promotes the release of dopamine and epinephrine. This provides us with energy and alertness without the need of caffeine.
However, we must avoid eating too many carbohydrates with this protein supper. Complex carbohydrates stimulate the release of serotonin, another neurotransmitter that induces sleep.
I should add mention that serotonin relieves sadness, soothes nerves, reduces appetite, and aids in the reduction of physical discomfort. When you need to stay alert, a meal high in complex carbs isn’t ideal. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, can help you feel better when you’re depressed or anxious.
Let’s talk about sugar now. When you eat a high-sugar snack, you will experience a surge in energy as your blood sugar levels rise. However, because insulin has surged and is clearing away the blood glucose, blood sugar lowers quickly. As a result, you’re just as exhausted, if not more, than when you started.
Another reason protein is an excellent pick-me-up is because it is high in amino acids. It stabilizes blood sugar levels, preventing fluctuations that can make you feel energized one minute and exhausted the next.
Let’s imagine you’re just getting started with a new exercise routine and need some inspiration. Omega 3 rich fish oils can be quite beneficial in this situation, as they affect the dopamine and serotonin systems in the brain, resulting in decreased depression and greater desire.
I could go on, but I’m going to stop now. Finally, this field of study is still very new. However, there are numerous examples of how food can affect our emotional state.
The relationship between food and conduct
Bobby: That is excellent information. It’s also really significant. Now, while it’s obvious that food has an affect on our mood, can we go so far as to conclude that it has an impact on our behavior as well?
Berardi, Dr.: Although food might influence our attitude and feelings, I prefer to believe we are all in charge of our actions.
Having said that, the presence or absence of certain nutrients might absolutely make us more susceptible to certain behaviors.
For example, when dieting for a competition, ask a physique competitor if they are nicer or meaner to their friends and family. Food-related chemical changes in their brain make them mean 9 times out of 10.
Of fact, I recall reading about a study that found that the dopamine system in physique competitors who ate a low-carb diet for a long time was similar to that of violent felons in prison.
And, given there aren’t many bodybuilders on death row, this is a wonderful example of how, while food can affect our mood, it doesn’t have to affect our actions.
However, a number of studies in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada have found that feeding prison inmates one multivitamin tablet and one omega-3 rich fish oil pill per day reduced the occurrence of aggressive conduct by 50%.
However, this isn’t limited to inmates. The same experiments were conducted in primary schools, and a similar reduction in playground violence – about 50% – was observed with simply a daily multivitamin and fish oil tablet.
As a result, there is some evidence that the presence or absence of particular nutrients might affect mood and behavior.
Bobby: Let’s take a look at one specific behavior: overeating. Many people assume that eating too much is a sort of self-medication. Is that correct?
Berardi, Dr.: This is something I’ve heard before, and it may be true in some circumstances. Overeating, on the other hand, is such a difficult issue, involving a variety of social, lifestyle, economic, mental, and emotional factors.
And I despise it when people try to oversimplify it by saying things like, “Oh, she just overeats because she’s upset.”
Overeating might be driven by one of two physiological factors, according to a recent study.
The first argument suggests that food elicits a significantly stronger pleasure response in certain persons than it does in others. As a result, overeaters continue to eat more because it feels good, leading to obesity.
The second argument suggests that food elicits a significantly lower pleasure response in overeaters than in regular eaters. As a result, overeaters continue to eat more in order to feel better, resulting in obesity.
My team has coached over 6,000 people over the last three years, and we’ve heard both scenarios described.
Other clients’ reasons for overeating, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as emotional. It’s simply that they don’t recognize they need to eat less than they do now. I’m not making this up.
We have lessons in our Lean Eating coaching program where our coaching team photographs their daily meals and shares them with their coaching clients. And the clients have these big ah-ha moments over and over again.
They’re like, “Wow, that’s what Coach eats?” Right now, I’m eating twice as much. I should probably cut back. So, sometimes the issue is simply that when people hear “eat less,” they are unsure what it implies.
In the end, overeating occurs for a variety of reasons, some of which are emotional and others which are purely practical.
When working with a client, the goal is to provide them extremely clear operating instructions while also assisting them in shaping their own route, as Chip and Dan Heath discuss in their book Switch.
Taste and overeating
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Dr. Berardi: The most basic reason could be a matter of taste.
Some people enjoy the flavor of sugary meals. Other folks enjoy the taste of fatty foods. Other others enjoy salty dishes as well. However, as David Kessler explains in his book The End of Overeating, when we combine the appropriate amounts of sweet, salty, creamy, and chunky flavors, we obtain dishes that are extremely difficult to resist.
They excite our taste senses and our brain pleasure centers to the point where we can’t stop at just one. Make no mistake: Kessler knows what he’s talking about as a former food scientist.
Big food companies pay food scientists to make food-like consumables that are tasty and delightful in every aspect – stuff that people can’t stop eating.
Unfortunately, delectable fruits and vegetables can’t compete with what food science has to offer.
That’s why I usually advise my clients to start with whole foods. Then, if you have any leftover room, try a bite of one of these bizarre pleasure meals.
This way, you’re not replacing nutrient-dense foods with greasy, sugary, salty alternatives. You’re also less inclined to overeat if you’re already very full.
Bobby: We’ve discussed food and mood before, as well as overeating. At this point, I’m just curious as to which meals best balance people’s moods while also aiding in the control of overeating.
Berardi, Dr.: It’s not as simple as simply saying, “consume this cuisine for a pleasant mood.”
Rather, the first step is to double-check that we haven’t overlooked anything crucial. Based on our talk, I believe the greatest first step in nutrition is to begin with omega-3 rich fish oil and a multivitamin.
That, at the very least, gets us started in the right way, because vitamin and omega 3 deficiency can have a bad impact on all aspects of health, including mood.
The next stage is to ensure that blood sugar levels remain stable throughout the day. Depending on your physiology, this means eating every 2-4 hours.
However, a snack is insufficient. A high-carb snack would result in an initial energy boost followed by a drop in blood sugar. So a snack with moderate protein, low-moderate complex carbohydrates, and some healthy fats would be preferable.
Finally, once your imbalances have been fixed and your blood sugar has been managed, you can employ specific foods to provide an energy boost or a soothing impact as needed.
However, you should focus the majority of your efforts on the first two steps: correcting inadequacies and balancing your blood sugar.
Emotional vs. rational thinking
Bobby: Many people are aware of what they should consume. When it comes time to order their meal, however, they are frequently so hungry that they order things they should not be ordering. What can you do to assist them with this?
Dr. Berardi: Punishment, in a nutshell. We make it a point to physically penalize them for making a poor decision.
Okay, I’m joking. No, they are not punished. Rather, we set them up for success from the start.
Why do people make poor decisions despite knowing better?
It’s because their emotional brain is taking precedence over their cognitive brain. What happens when the emotional brain takes over? We use it when we’re depressed, angry, stressed, or hungry. The emotional brain is in charge of these emotions. In our coaching program, we have an approach called “noticing and identifying” for dealing with the emotional brain.
Here’s an illustration of how it works. Let’s pretend it’s lunchtime and you’re going out to eat. You haven’t eaten anything since 7 a.m., so it’s been 5 and a half hours and you’re hungry.
“Get the lean chicken and salad,” your reasonable brain says. “Order one of everything – including dessert,” your emotional brain suggests. So, what exactly do you do?
First and foremost, you observe and name. “OK, I see what’s going on here,” you remark. My emotional brain is on the verge of exploding. That’s because my blood sugar is low, and my neurotransmitters are signaling me to eat.”
You’ve simply picked up on something and named it. And once you’ve done that, you’ll be more equipped to be rational.
“But, you know what, I’ll be fine,” you say. Even though I’m a little freaked out, I’ll make it. All I need to do now is take a few deep breaths. Then make a decent meal decision. Whatever I choose, the freak out will come to an end once I start eating. So I’d better pick something that’s healthy for me.”
Noticing and identifying is a fantastic method for all aspects of life, not just nutrition. We reclaim control when we observe and name what’s going on. And we try to avoid making stupid judgments in the first place [rather than feeling guilty afterward].
Of course, if at all possible, we’ll try to prevent some of these circumstances in the first place. And, when it comes to food, being prepared is essential.
The easiest way to maintain nutritional control is to eat every 2-4 hours and make excellent choices. We can maintain blood sugar balance and satiation by eating frequently and picking the correct foods. This means that you should never be too tired or hungry.
But keep in mind that even the most “perfect” people make mistakes when it comes to meal preparation. When we do, it’s time to take note, name it, and take command.
Bobby: As we come to a close, what are one or two practices that fitness professionals might recommend to their customers to assist them improve their intake?
Dr. Berardi: Well, Bobby, you’re on to something – philosophically speaking, that is.
In a moment, I’ll answer your question and share a few behaviors. But first, I must emphasize how important the concept of “one” or “two” behaviors is.
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My own coaching experience (as well as a growing body of research) suggests that people can usually only modify one behavior at a time.
Humans are impatient creatures. We desire immediate fulfillment. Everything we desire is now — or, better yet, yesterday. In fact, one of my Lean Eating coaching clients wrote a review of the program, stating that he would have preferred if we had taught him all of the habits and behaviors at once rather than throughout the course of the six-month program.
Doesn’t that sound reasonable? I mean, if there were things he could have done right away, why did we wait 4 or 5 months for him to do it? Isn’t there anything more he could have done?
Doing more, you see, is the issue! It’s something that everyone aspires to. They come in with their guns blazing, vowing to make huge changes across the board, only to fall in a heap of exhaustion and self-loathing when their first promise is broken.
Of course, you COULD change multiple things at once, but not for long, and certainly not long enough to see long-term, sustainable improvement — which is what you really want, right?
Oh, and what about that man who said we should have taught him everything at once? He lost 50 pounds doing it our way, winning the $10,000 prize for the finest physical makeover!
Accepting that you can only modify one behavior at a time is the true trick here. You will fail if you try to modify more than one item at a time. That’s all there is to it.
Now, in terms of habits, we’ll start with something we’ve already discussed: take fish oil and a multivitamin every day. This habit is simple to establish and results in significant physiological changes.
We also include – one by one – the following habits:
- Every meal and snack should include lean protein.
- Save high-carbohydrate meals for after you’ve exercised.
- Consumption of 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables
- Every day, eat breakfast
- consuming at least 2 liters of water each day
- And there’s more…
You’ll notice that nothing here is really “fancy.” But that is precisely the goal. People don’t require anything extravagant. Every two weeks or so, they need to follow one honest-to-goodness habit. They’ll need a new habit once they’ve mastered the first.
These habits will accumulate until the person’s eating habits have gradually improved from where they were previously (typically not very good).
There’s one more piece of the puzzle to this entire habit thing. Once you’ve established a habit, you’ll need to determine whether your client believes they can maintain it. What’s more, how do you find out? You’ve inquired.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, how confident are you that you can stick to the habit?” you ask.[Whether it’s fish oil and a multivitamin, fruits and vegetables, breakfast, water, or something else entirely.]
You offer them the habit and hold them accountable to doing it for two weeks if they’re confident and report a 9 or 10 out of 10. You DON’T give them the habit if they say anything less than 9 out of 10.
Instead, you make it easy to maintain the behavior. Perhaps 2 instead of 5 servings of vegetables. Perhaps breakfast is only served on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. You keep making the habit easier until they can declare, “yeah, I’m confident I can do it — 9 out of 10.”
It is this self-assurance that generates motivation and good momentum. And no amount of brow-beating will persuade someone who doesn’t believe they can accomplish something to go ahead and do it anyhow.
Bobby: Okay, Dr. Berardi – Thank you so much for sharing this fantastic knowledge! Where can folks learn more about optimal diet for a healthy mind and body?
Berardi, Dr.: If anyone listening in is interested in learning more about nutrition, I highly recommend taking a free 5-day video course called “The Essentials of Nutrition Coaching,” which I’ve made available.
I teach the following topics during the course of the five days:
- How might nutrition coaching be included into a personal training or strength coaching setting?
- How do you evaluate a new client?
- What is the best way to create a nutrition plan based on that assessment?
- What statistics should be measured, and how should they be measured?
- What is the best way to optimize a nutrition plan based on those figures?
And I don’t simply talk about it; I demonstrate it to fitness professionals. In fact, I provide them with all of the necessary forms and materials to get started right immediately.
I set out to make this course better than any nutrition seminar I’ve ever attended, and I believe I’ve succeeded. But that is a decision for those who see it.
Here’s a link to find out more: “Nutrition Coaching Fundamentals” is a book that explains the basics of nutrition coaching.
Find out more.
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What’s the best part? They are completely free.
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This article broadly covered the following related topics:
- serotonin foods
- the food that helps battle depression
- food and mood journal
- tryptophan rich vegetarian foods
- food and mood book