How Food Improves Mood: Bringing Nutrition into the Consulting Room
By Leslie Korn
Q: I don’t have a degree in nutrition, but I think many of my clients could improve their moods by incorporating some basic ideas about healthy eating into their self-care. How can I help them do this?
A:After working as a psychotherapist and a behavioral medicine specialist for more than 35 years with diverse populations of depressed and stressed clients, I’ve found that the standard North American diet—which includes a large proportion of refined foods, such as breads, rice, pastas, and sugary drinks—is a prime contributing factor in many clients’ presenting complaints. Of course, just as there’s no one correct psychotherapeutic intervention for everyone, there’s no one diet for everyone, but I’ve developed two basic dietary requirements for helping clients better integrate wellness, self-care, and nutrition. One is to eliminate refined carbohydrates and sugars from their diet, and the other is to increase their protein intake.
Mood follows food, and mood swings follow blood-sugar swings. Refined carbohydrates, such as sugar and white flour, cause blood sugar to rise sharply and then drop; hence the quick pickup when we grab sugar, followed by the just-as-quick letdown within an hour or two as glucose levels drop and fatigue and irritability return. To balance mood, stabilizing blood sugar is the first nutritional action to take.
People under chronic stress are vulnerable to reactive hypoglycemia, which occurs as a result of an excessive release of insulin following a meal high in refined carbohydrates. The resulting drop in blood glucose leads to a drop in mood as well as irritability, nervousness, panic, confusion, and shakiness. Thus, with the increase in diagnoses of attention and mood disorders and the overmedication of their symptoms, it behooves us to include simple questions in our intake sessions with clients about their use of sugar—specifically, how often they drink sodas and energy drinks and eat refined carbohydrates, such as cookies, white bread, and pizza. Many children with apparent attention problems who regularly eat sugary cereals in the morning would have more sustained and focused energy if they simply ate more protein for breakfast.
For adults and children alike, withdrawing from sugar and refined carbohydrates can be done by going on a protein-rich diet for 7 to 10 days. This process involves eating small amounts (two to four ounces) of protein six times a day (every three to four hours) and one to two servings of a root vegetable—such as a sweet potato or carrots topped with butter or olive oil—along with raw salads or cooked green vegetables. Vegetarians, whose diets are typically carbohydrate heavy and protein light, will benefit from eating more eggs and dairy, along with vegetables and legumes, to ensure that their protein sources provide a complete mix of amino acids, the chemical building blocks of mood and focus.
Following this change in diet, most people will lose their craving for refined carbohydrates and sugars.
From there, small amounts of additional carbohydrates, like fruit and grains, can be restored to their diet each day. But the basic principles of using protein to enhance mood and attention should persist. For example, hard-boiled eggs make a great snack, and baked or roasted chicken or fish can easily be packed for lunch.
To help clients make changes in their diets to improve mood stability, I often share information about alternatives to sugar and artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame. A significant body of research has shown that aspartame, along with other food additives, has been linked to neurological, psychiatric, and behavioral disorders and is associated with headaches and panic among vulnerable individuals, including people with a history of depression. Stevia, a plant indigenous to South America and now readily available in powder or liquid form, is a great sugar substitute.
To get a mild mood boost, many clients, especially women, eat a lot of dark or milk chocolate, yet most chocolate has high levels of sugar in it. So I recommend that clients obtain pure organic cocoa, mix it with a favorite liquid (almond, hemp, or rice milk, or organic cow or goat milk), and add stevia to sweeten it. This becomes a nutritious and medicinal drink, which eases the challenge of going cold turkey on sugar.