Emotional Eating: How Your Diet Could Be Sabotaging Your Mood

dietdietRaise your hand if you end a really bad day with a bag of potato chips. How about ice cream or cookies? Let's try another one. Raise your hand if you start off a long day of meetings with a bagel or a muffin. If your hand is raised, put down the bagel and slowly step away.

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Emotional eating is a habit for many of us. (Guilty as charged!) We self-medicate with food when feeling angry, frustrated, or sad. Yet as a society we have become very dependent on sweet, sugary foods for emotional satisfaction instead of healthier alternatives like nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. In fact, 80% of children and 70% of adults are consuming fewer than five servings of vegetables and fruits per day, which could have a devastating effect on our collective mental well-being.

Here's why. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter in the brain that produces a sense of calm and ease. For people with reduced serotonin levels, such as those with known bipolar disorder, the intake of carbohydrates produces tryptophan, which converts to serotonin and temporarily fills that void. So it makes some sense that people turn to food when they are feeling down. The brain runs on glucose and it relies on carbohydrates to supply the energy it needs. The problem with binging on sugary foods is that is can mess with the brain's chemistry by alternating highs and lows.

Recent research, presented at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting, shows that drinking sweetened beverages is linked to an increased risk of depression in adults. The large-scale study measured consumption of various drinks over a ten year period. People who drank significant amounts of soda per day were a whopping 30% more likely to develop depression than non soda-drinkers. Those who drank significant amounts of fruit punch per day were even more likely (38%) to develop depression than those who did not consume sweetened drinks. Additionally, those who drank diet sodas, juices, and even teas were more likely to develop depression than those who drank regular (non-diet) drinks.

Whether you have a habit of turning to a can of soda or a favorite sugary, high carbohydrate food when you are feeling down, consider looking to healthier carbohydrates, such as those from fruits and vegetables. While a salad may not be quite as emotionally satisfying, your brain will avoid the crash that comes after getting serotonin from junk foods. A 2012 study of 80,000 people found that happiness and strong mental health is higher for those who consume daily portions of fruit and vegetables.

Studies have also shown that eating a Mediterranean type of diet is linked to better cognitive function and well-being in people with depression. Mediterranean diets typically include fruits and nuts, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, and fish. There is little consumption of dairy products with a moderate intake of alcohol (mostly wine). A recent study published from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain showed that the Mediterranean diet, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamin E and resveratrol can improve cognitive function and mood.

You may also wish to add a vitamin and mineral supplement to your diet. At a recent panel discussion at the 2013 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting & Food Expo, Bonnie Kaplan of the University of Calgary said that vitamins and mineral supplements can potentially be an alternative to increasing psychiatric medicines for symptom relief of anxiety and depression. In a series of studies, she found that people already diagnosed with having a mental disorder showed better mental functioning and well-being with a higher intake of vitamins and minerals. She said that supplements can provide the mental energy necessary to manage stress, enhance mood, and reduce fatigue.

So the next time you are feeling down, take notice of what foods or drink you pick up. Your brain will thank you.

- By Jessica Cohen

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