Anyone who knows me well knows that I am notoriously hangry. Five or six hours of no food and I turn into a demon who’s not responsible for anything she says or does. On the flip side, a cheesy bowl of risotto or a scoop of peanut butter chocolate ice cream can bring me more joy than most things in life. It makes me wonder: do I have an unusual dependance on food, or are other people’s moods affected by what and when they’re eating? This summer I was not alone in my struggle, while I was at an opera training program for 9 weeks. Aside from the grueling hours and uncomfortable beds, the part that really made it seem like the summer would never end was the food. Our chef was incompetent, to say the least. Morale would often be low in rehearsal after our pathetic dinner of cold cauliflower and “lasagna” (often just noodles and ground beef). Our lives changed when the chef was fired and our brave wig designer became the new head chef. We were now eating well-rounded dinners with proteins, grains, variety, and best of all-flavor!! We walked into rehearsals feeling full and energetic, and much cheerier. If it hadn’t been for the change in diet, there might have been few survivors by the end of the summer.
So what’s actually going on in our bodies when we’re crabby after forgetting to pack our lunch, or skipping down the street after that pistachio gelato. First of all, we have to realize that our bodies are well designed machines, set up to remind us when we aren’t taking care of them. When we eat carbs, our bodies break them down into simple sugars. After a meal, the glucose levels in our body are high and gradually begin to drop as we go about our day. Once these levels reach a low enough point, our brain registers this as a life threatening situation, as the brain relies solely on glucose as a fuel source. In addition, other organs in our body react to the low glucose levels by producing hormones, including the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol, which are released when our body perceives a threat. Furthermore, anger and hunger share similar genes, which produce the protein neuropeptide Y, which stimulates eating behavior and regulates anger and aggression. Suffice to say, I am the last person to blame for my cranky hungry mood swings! Maybe someday I’ll actually learn to pack snacks.
But, that still doesn’t explain why I’m much happier after eating the warm chocolate chip cookies out of the oven than I am after eating my cold leftover salad. According to research, there are two types of ways that food can boost our mood: (1) foods that contain compounds that physically affect our brain chemistry, and (2) comfort foods that produce happiness on a psychological level. Let’s start with the first kind of food high. Certain compounds in food help neurotransmitter production (neurotransmitters are our brains’ communication signals and are responsible for our moods). One example of this is serotonin, the neurotransmitter most connected to happiness. Foods that help produce serotonin include spinach, turkey, and bananas. In contrast, foods like cookies, ice cream, and potato chips have no specific compounds that directly affect our brain, yet those are the foods we reach for after a long day at work, a break up, or a fight with a friend. That’s because the comfort foods we crave are often linked to the associations they call to mind. Often times we reach for foods that we ate during a happy time in life, or foods we ate with a person we loved. Additionally, eating food high in fat, sugar and salt activates the brain’s reward system (and our taste buds definitely do feel rewarded).