Food and mood: Awareness can lead to healthier path
Cindy Sutter Camera Staff Writer Posted: 01/12/2010 10:52:40 AM MST
If you made a New Year's resolution, chances are it had to do with your how you eat -- the perennial No. 1 change people say they would like to make in surveys.
And chances are that almost two weeks into that resolution, you may be wavering a bit when it comes to your healthy intentions. Maybe you feel cranky, irritable and hungry, even though you're eating healthy food and the right number of calories. Or perhaps you just don't feel satisfied by what you're eating, even though you're stomach is full.
That could be because you haven't stuck the right balance between food and mood.
"It's kind of like the chicken and the egg," says Esther Cohen, a nutritionist and holistic wellness coach. "They both have a profound effect on one another."
Nutritionists describe the food-mood cycle of the typical American diet thusly: The day starts with coffee and a high-carbohydrate breakfast, which leads to a mid-day crash, and a hurried lunch, often with more carbs and caffeine. A mid-afternoon crash is fixed with a bar or candy, the energy from which dissipates just as the harried worker arrives home to interacting with the family's similar cycle. That might lead to a glass of wine, a quick dinner and the urge for something sweet afterward.
It's this real estate bubble-like relationship with food that led to the cabinet currently being full of whole grains and the fridge full of fruits and veggies. Yet, perhaps that great feeling you were expecting hasn't quite arrived.
Cheer up. Every school of nutrition agrees that whole grains, fruits, vegetables, protein and healthy fats are the building blocks of healthy, sustainable eating habits, whereas processed foods never will be.
"The more refined a product is, the more it has been altered from its whole or original state, the more rapidly it, too, is processed within us, causing a greater insulin imbalance and a greater stress on neurotransmitters, which are what affect our mood," Cohen says.
You just need to figure out the best way to consume that bounty of whole foods.
First they should taste good.
Nutritionist Jennifer Workman of the The Balanced Approach in Boulder, combines western nutrition and sports medicine concepts with Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old Indian nutritional framework that takes into account with a person's individual constitution and the seasons of the year. It also stresses the taste and enjoyment of food.
"Is your diet balanced? Do you have all six tastes," Workman asks. "If you're only eating sweets, you're going to set yourself up for cravings."
The six tastes, according to Ayurveda are sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent.
"Most people know when they sit down to a decent meal," Workman says, adding that such a meal would be a healthy protein such as tofu or chicken, vegetables, good spices and flavors, finished with a cup of tea.
"If (people are) grabbing bars, eating the wrong things at the wrong season, it sets them up for cravings and feeling out of balance."
Listening to your body
Understanding your own body and how food affects it is key to finding balance in your diet.
"Everyone is different," Workman says. "There has yet to be the one diet that's going to fix everybody. Individuation is very important, finding the right balance for a person."
Finding that balance is made easier working with a professional who has knowledge of food and can spot trends in your personal habits, but you can learn to listen to your body and draw some conclusions yourself.
Feeling the effect of a particular type of food is an intuitive part of being human that has been lost to busy schedules, food marketers and diet books, not to mention the siren call of concentrated sugars our evolutionary ancestors never encountered.
Cohen, who also is director of Seven Bowls School of Nutrition, Nourishment and Healing, says she frequently has clients who tout a particular nutrition book they've just read.
"They're so removed from having any type of body sense," she says. "It's really wonderful ... to begin to experience how our foods feel ... as opposed to reading (how to eat.)"
Cohen says it's important to eat slowly and consciously.
"Maybe the food is perfect, but if I'm eating standing up and talking on my cell phone, I'm not getting the benefit," she says.
She recounts the story of one client who ate a lot of fast-food burgers.
"Once he had to sit down and chew, he discovered he really didn't like them," she says.Nutrition Counselor Debbie Sarfati-Steinbock says one key to body awareness is noticing the effect of a food on your mood, energy and level of cravings afterward.
"When we evaluate how a food is, we can't only evaluate it on taste," she says. "That would be like walking into a store (and saying) 'This sweater is soft. I want it,' without looking at the price or size or color."
She says many people who complain of low energy are spiking up their energy with caffeine and sugar, so that they don't know what healthy energy feels like.
"They're used to so much artificial energy," she says. "(Healthy energy) is not elation and depression. It's a much more consistent type of energy."
A good start
How, then, to get on that healthy path and to figure out what works for you?
Sarfati-Steinbock advises starting with breakfast. She has clients try a high-carbohydrate, whole-grain type of breakfast one day and a high-protein breakfast such as a vegetable omelet the next.
She says which is best depends on individual metabolism. Clients are asked to pay attention to how they feel by lunchtime. If that bowl of oatmeal lasts till lunch, they should stick with that approach. If they feel better with more protein, fewer carbs and some fat, that the path to stay on.
One of her clients, Rachel Smith, who lives in Westminster, noticed a big change in the way she felt when she started eating according to Sarfati-Steinbock's advice. Smith originally sought out the nutritionist when her then-6-year-old son was experiencing behavior problems. In the process of changing his diet, the whole family got a nutrition makeover, mainly adding more fruits and vegetables.
Before changing her diet, Smith says she had problems such as skin rashes.
"I would get headaches. I felt tired, grouchy and kind of overwhelmed," she says.
Smith tried the breakfast test, and realized she felt much better eating a higher protein breakfast. A typical breakfast now might be a large plate of sauteed kale with a couple of eggs cooked in.
"I noticed I had more energy when I ate protein and vegetables in the morning," Smith says.
She also found that she ate less during the day and felt more satisfied. The higher carbohydrate breakfast left her wanting more.
"I'd open the cabinets, sort of looking for something," she says.
Now she eats her carbs later in the day when she wants to wind down.
"I might eat oatmeal as a bedtime snack," she says.
Cohen says paying attention to what we eat can be life changing. She asks clients to tell her what foods make them feel good and then suggests similar foods to help boost their system.