Science has suggested that the pursuit of happiness might actually begin at our kitchen table, with major ramifications for the way we, as a culture, view the connection between food and mental health.
While it’s been understood for decades that a diet centered around a large variety of different fruits and vegetables is associated with increased happiness, longevity, and overall well-being (over 90% of serotonin — i.e. the “happiness” chemical neurotransmitter — is produced directly in the gut, after all!), it may be to our detriment that we never hear about the foods that may be actively detracting from our healthful efforts (1).
“The act of nutrition has been proven in research to have a direct correlation with the improvement of mental health.” — Eva Selhub, MD from Harvard University
Here are 6 Foods That Might Be Negatively Affecting Your Mood:
- Sugary Drinks (soda, fruit juice, energy drinks, sweet tea)
Unlike whole fruits, which naturally moderate insulin levels with the presence of fibre, fruit juice, and other sugary drinks, have been repeatedly linked to an increased risk of mood disorders, hyperactivity, and general depression (2). Not only is a higher sugar intake linked to higher levels of unhappiness in general, but the immediate spike in blood sugar levels that accompanies these popular drinks means that your mood will likely take a hit even within the hour.
What’s important to note, is that research indicates that diet sodas and artificially sweetened drinks might actually be even worth more than their legitimate counterparts. Aspartame — the controversial sweetener used in thousands of drinks, dressings, and desserts — has been routinely associated with the experience of sadness and irritability of mood, due to its potential modulation of certain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, within the brain (3).
2. Refined Carbohydrates (white bread, white flour, white pasta, pastries, cakes, cookies, processed cereals)
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s no coincidence that researchers and nutritionists alike have nicknamed the Modern American Diet, and the Standard American Diet, “MAD,” and “SAD,” respectively. Due to its unhealthy focus on sugars, refined carbohydrates, and high trans-fat containing foods, it’s no wonder that in areas where the Western Diet is most heavily adhered to, the prevalence of mood disorders, and depression continues to rise.
Meals rich in processed foods, and refined grains cause exaggerated spikes in sugar and fat within the body, leading to the generation of free radicals. Free radicals are the molecules responsible for mutations within the body that can wreak havoc on lipids, proteins, and DNA, raising the likelihood of disease, in the process. The oxidative stress that results from these biochemical food reactions subsequently triggers our brain to enter a mild form of fight-or-flight mode, dramatically increasing our experience of anxiety and unease (4).
3. Poultry (chicken, turkey, goose)
There is a compound called tryptophan which is an amino acid, and one of the building blocks of serotonin. . Studies have shown that people with deficiencies of this compound suffer from irritability, anger, and often depression as a result (5). What’s more, is that while complete Seratonin does not possess the ability to cross between the blood-brain barrier, tryptophan does. This would lead us to believe that consuming animal foods highest in tryptophan — such as chicken and turkey — would be beneficial… right?
Wrong. The problem is that animal sources of tryptophan are also high in other amino acids, which crowd the brain for entry, thereby blocking tryptophan out. Plant-based foods, however, trigger a release of insulin that helps your muscles uptake non-tryptophan amino acids as a source of fuel, giving your brain clear access to the tryptophan it needs.
In fact, a direct comparison study found that a carb-rich breakfast such as whole-grain waffles and fruit actually resulted in higher (initial and maintained) levels of tryptophan in the brain, versus a breakfast comprised of protein-rich foods such as turkey, eggs, and cheese (6).
4. Alcohol (whiskey, wine, beer, tequila, liqueurs)
Regardless of the mood we’re in when we take that first sip, both low and high levels of alcohol consumption have been shown to be related to an increased risk in the experiencing of negative emotions, or, rather, a decreased ability to regulate distress or sadness. For some, drinking can even be linked to aggression, with epidemiological studies suggesting that the effects of alcohol consumption may lead to a decrease in intellectual reasoning within the pre-frontal cortex of the brain that, when coupled with perceived provocation, may result in elevated levels of anger, anxiety, and anti-social behaviour (7).
Indeed, we can probably all vouch for the fact that if alcohol really isn’t putting a damper on our happiness while we’re drinking it, the subsequent hangover to follow the next morning, certainly might.
5. Seed Oils (soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil)
Hydrogenated oils such as soybean and sesame oil are comprised of up to 60% of a compound known as Omega-6 (also known as linoleic acid). Despite the healthy-sounding nature of this term, there can be disastrous effects that arise from having too much of it in your system. In fact, research demonstrates that there is a significant correlation between the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 and poor mood health (8). This is because both types of fatty acids compete with one another, and there’s a strong tendency for an excess of one to knock the other one completely out.
In the last century, our consumption of soybean oil, alongside other seed oils, has risen by 56,000%. Make sure to check out the ingredient labels on processed foods too, as companies love to use seed oils in their products due to their relative inexpensiveness.
Interestingly enough, it’s not the Omega-6 in the seed oil itself that causes issues, rather, it’s what occurs when linoleic acid gets converted to arachidonic acid within the body. This acid has been significantly linked with an adverse impact on mental health via a cascade of inflammation that occurs in the brain upon ingestion, with data suggesting that higher levels of arachidonic acid are related to a higher risk of suicide and major depressive episodes (9).
The trouble with arachidonic acid is that although we need small amounts of it in order for our bodies to fight infection, we already produce 100% of what we will ever need, meaning that any extra taking in through our diet is going to have some degree of negative consequences.
While the only plant sources of arachidonic acid include algae, mosses, and ferns — substances unlikely to be consumed on any regular basis — all animal products are found to contain the chemical, with the five highest sources being chicken, eggs, beef, pork, and fish. Note that eggs, in particular, contain more arachidonic acid than all the others combined, with research indicating that even eating as little as a single egg per day was enough to significantly raise the levels of inflammation within the brain (10).
Overall, omnivores were found to consume about nine times more arachidonic acid than their plant-based counterpart participants, providing some additional context for the benefits of a diet centered around whole foods, fruits, and vegetables!
- Evrensel, A., & Ceylan, M. E. (2015). The Gut-Brain Axis: The Missing Link in Depression. Clinical psychopharmacology and neuroscience : the official scientific journal of the Korean College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 13(3), 239–244.
2. Lien, L., Lien, N., Heyerdahl, S., Thoresen, M., & Bjertness, E. (2006). Consumption of soft drinks and hyperactivity, mental distress, and conduct problems among adolescents in Oslo, Norway. American journal of public health, 96(10), 1815–1820.
6. Wurtman, R. J., Wurtman, J. J., Regan, M. M., McDermott, J. M., Tsay, R. H., & Breu, J. J. (2003). Effects of normal meals rich in carbohydrates or proteins on plasma tryptophan and tyrosine ratios. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 77(1), 128–132.
7. Moeller, F. G., & Dougherty, D. M. (2001). Antisocial personality disorder, alcohol, and aggression. Alcohol research & health : the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 25(1), 5–11.
8. Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K. PhD; Belury, Martha A. PhD; Porter, Kyle MAS; Beversdorf, David Q. MD; Lemeshow, Stanley PhD; Glaser, Ronald PhDDepressive Symptoms, omega-6:omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Inflammation in Older Adults, Psychosomatic Medicine: April 2007 — Volume 69 — Issue 3 — p 217–224
9. Vaz, J. S., Kac, G., Nardi, A. E., & Hibbeln, J. R. (2014). Omega-6 fatty acids and greater likelihood of suicide risk and major depression in early pregnancy. Journal of affective disorders, 152, 76–82.
10. Adams PB, Lawson S, Sanigorski A, Sinclair AJ. Arachidonic acid to eicosapentaenoic acid ratio in blood correlates positively with clinical symptoms of depression. Lipids. 1996 Mar;31 Suppl:S157–61. doi: 10.1007/BF02637069. PMID: 8729112.