The Food and Mood Connection

By Wendy Bacigalupi-Bednarz, Editorial Contributor

When we feel stressed-out, many of us reach for food to improve our mood. But foods and moods are connected by more than a psychological need for comfort. They are linked through stress-driven changes that occur in our bodies.

Consider this scenario:

A young person in his second semester of college feels overwhelmed by his studies, which causes stress. This stress persists for months. He craves fatty and sugary foods, and finds that when he eats them, he feels better — temporarily. Ultimately, his donut-induced mood and energy crash, so he frequently snacks on even more fatty and sugary foods. Why?

That’s the brain’s way of handling longer-term stress. It releases different types of hormones that increase hunger. One, known as cortisol, is a hunger hormone released during extended periods of stress. Not surprisingly, cortisol is often associated with weight gain.

Does this mean that mood controls food? Not necessarily, says Lauren Popeck, a registered dietitian with Orlando Health. We can actually use food to balance mood, she says, especially during times of stress. Certain food choices contain nutrients that can decrease stress, naturally, and help keep hunger hormones in check. She suggests a 3R food strategy (relax, regulate and revitalize) to manage the effects of stress on your body.

Follow the 3Rs and choose from these foods to:


Green, black and white teas contain L-theanine, an amino acid found in tea leaves, which can promote relaxation, reduce stress and improve sleep. Choose decaffeinated varieties to avoid further stimulation and stress.

Leafy greens, nuts, seeds and beans contain both magnesium and GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), for a double dose of ingredients that fight

Dark Chocolate

 stress and anxiety. Magnesium also is found in whole grains and peas, while GABA is a key component of oats, citrus fruits, bananas and brown rice.

Dark chocolate that’s at least 70 percent cacao can help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and decrease anxiety. 


Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates encourage the development of serotonin, which helps regulate mood and calm nerve impulses. Foods to focus on include sweet potatoes, minestrone soup, sautéed veggiesover brown rice, beans and lentils, and oatmeal with fruit.

Vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant, helps regulate stress hormones. You can find it in citrus fruits, strawberries, cantaloupe, red bell peppers and papaya.

B vitamins provide energy, promote serotonin and maintain nervous system function. They are abundant in leafy greens, fish, nuts and seeds.


Inflammation-fighting, brain-boosting Omega 3 fatty acids are found in walnuts, ground flax seeds, chia seeds, salmon and sardines.Berries are a good source of resveratrol

Resveratrol — a natural phenol found in red wine, grape skins and berries — can decrease inflammation and neurological decline.

Turmeric, a spice, has the proven benefits of improving long- and short-term attention, memory, mood and alertness.

Trifecta Foods

Leafy greens • Nuts • Seeds

Why pick one, when you can have all three? These foods contain a triple shot of nutrients — magnesium, GABA and B vitamins — to help you relax and regulate your stress. 

Don’t Feed Stress

Popeck of Orlando Health recommends these strategies to keep your food from fueling more stress:

  • Stay away from foods high in saturated fat and trans fat. They’ll make you feel sluggish and are linked to lower metabolism and weight gain.
  • Limit caffeine.
  • Don’t skip meals.
  • And, of course, avoid sugary foods. The temporary energy boost and stress relief that sugar creates is followed by a blood-sugar crash. This can cause more sugar cravings and irritability.

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