Food – and lack of it – can alter state of body, mind

Dear Dr. Wes and John: Does dieting affect your mood? If so, what diets are better than others?

Dr. Wes: I wasn’t sure if you were asking about dieting to lose weight or diet in general, but the two issues are related, and the answer is, in a word, “yes.” Diet and dieting do affect your moods for good or ill. I found a good analogy by clinical nutritionist Samantha Heller, who suggests this relationship is kind of like a chemistry set: “If you are chemically balanced, your moods will be balanced.” This is a bit of an oversimplification because a lot of other things affect one’s mood, including environment, exposure to trauma and heredity. However, people with low risk for depression or anxiety can create mood problems by eating in certain ways, and those who are at risk can make things much better or worse by how they eat. In one example, researchers found that intake of sugar, caffeine, alcohol and chocolate tended to have negative influences on mood, while increased intake of water, vegetables, fruit and oil-rich fish had a positive effect.

As you’ve probably gathered from media coverage, sugar and certain carbohydrates that turn into sugar quickly are by far the biggest offenders. These includes just about everything that’s fun to eat: cookies, cakes, pies, pancakes, potato chips, pop, even fruit juices. It makes me hungry just writing this. Such foods – which Americans consume by the truckload – enter your body very quickly, causing it to respond with a big shot of insulin and throwing you off balance. If you haven’t heard it 100 times already, many repetitions of this sugar alert/insulin cycle cause your body to become less efficient, leaving you at risk for diabetes and other problems. It also affects your mood, creating a down state after the sugar high wears off.

On the other side, if you don’t eat enough during the day, your blood sugar levels will go down, leaving you with a blah feeling that may easily be mistaken for depression. This is one problem dieters get into as they starve their bodies, then rebound and eat a great deal, then feel guilty and go back to starving. This is exactly what you don’t need to maintain the balance Heller suggests.

I’m not a nutritionist, and I would strongly urge you to begin any diet only under the supervision of one who is well-versed in this topic. I will say that one “nonsecret” of dieting for mood stability is to eat smaller meals more frequently to keep blood sugar regulated. You should also look into the benefits of fish and fish oils. There is mounting scientific evidence that folks in fish-eating countries have better mental and cardiac health. I’ll leave it to you and your nutritionist to determine whether these suggestions apply to you, but they have been helpful for others.

The other factor in mood management is, of course, exercise. It’s a clear medical fact that exercise helps improve mood stability, energy and psychological coping resources. One doesn’t have to run cross-country to get those benefits. Just take a regular walk, jog, run or other physical activity should get the job done.

John: Sudden changes in eating habits can also throw your body off-kilter. When you eat the same types of food every day, your body adjusts to make the most efficient use of them, and it comes to expect them every day. If you usually drink a Coke at lunch, you likely feel a Coke craving right before noon. When switching to a healthier diet, you are ridding your body of the toxins it has become so used to. Expect some resistance. The good news is that once you stick to a diet, it becomes easier to avoid those unhealthy foods. Just make sure the diet you choose is sustainable. Don’t starve yourself on a fad diet, because as Wes points out, you’ll immediately gain the weight back once you come off it. Clinical studies have shown yo-yo weight patterns to be worse for the body than obesity.

When talking about mood and dieting, it’s important to distinguish between real hunger and head hunger. Real hunger is the burning or growling you feel in your stomach. Head hunger the desire to eat food because you are upset. It’s natural to be stressed, but make sure you relieve this stress in healthy ways, like exercise, rather than try to eat your feelings away. Your body wasn’t built to binge on massive amounts of fat or sugar, and doing so will only aggravate your mood swings. Eat only when you are hungry; never when you are angry, tired or lonely.

Americans like to develop patterns around eating, but it’s okay to be counter-cultural. If you have just finished a wonderful meal, it doesn’t need a dessert. You don’t even have to finish your meal if you are already full. When major dates like Thanksgiving roll by, don’t feel you need to be gorged in order to spread the holiday cheer. There will be plenty of leftovers tomorrow. In the end, effective dieting all comes down to mood, and whether you can keep your head in the midst of passion.

Next week: The Double Take Contest results. We’ll publish the winning essay and the runner-up and see who’ll be writing next fall and cashing in the $1,100 scholarship.

– Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to All correspondence is strictly confidential.