Food And Mood:

How What You Eat Changes Who You Are

Can you eat your way to happiness? The link between food and mood, mental health, and behavior is a lot more solid than your average TV news program is likely to key you in on.

Most go through their entire lives without connecting the dots, but what you swallow plays a huge roll in determining your happiness and behavior, and can make the difference between thriving and flailing your way through life.

It wasn't until early 2003, when I first started experimenting with a low fat cooked vegan diet based around whole foods, that I noticed I was considerably happier than I'd been at any point in my life. At first, I brushed aside the realization as a figment of my imagination or a temporary high. 

Eventually, after simply being happier than usual for so long, I was convinced there actually was a connection, and when I started eating a raw food diet in 2005 as a way of addressing my colitis, the mood difference became profound. Suddenly I seemed to always bounce back to a pretty steady level of happiness, no matter what emotional issues cropped up.

Food And Mood:

Can Good Eats Make you Happy?

Food and Mood BikingMy own increase in happiness during  dietary upgrades over the years made me realize something was going on, but the vast majority of people eating great diets I've met have been happier and more upbeat than the general population.

Those eating the worst diets seem more likely to be depressed, stolid, and dispassionate, and it's pretty usual to hear those eating healthy low fat raw vegan diets based around fruit and greens comment on how they're just inexplicably happier since their dietary switch.

My mind at first rebelled against this connection, and I wondered at the chicken or egg quality of the subject. Do happier people just eat better, or does a superior diet actually have some unexpected ability to lift our spirits?

It's a tough subject to get empirical evidence on because regardless of diet, no two people live the same life and happiness is kind of subjective, which obviously leaves huge room for the thousands of outside factors and personal norms that affect our how we might describe our mood to wreak havoc.

Recently, though, some interesting science has started to indicate that food and mood are closely intertwined.

Food And Mood:

Are Vegetarians And Vegans Really Happier?

There's plenty of science connecting eating meat, eggs, and dairy to increased risk of all sorts of physical diseases, but the connection with improved mood is fairy recent, and sometimes comes from unexpected places.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is one of the few Christian groups to suggest vegetarian and vegan diets to its adherents along with abstinence from smoking and alcohol, regular exercise, and other healthy lifestyle elements. It does not, however, demand compliance with these values as a requirement of membership, and a fair number of Adventists eat animal foods.

Recently, a group of researchers had the bright idea of looking at Adventists who share a common faith and close-knit church to see if there was a difference between the happiness levels of the meat eaters and the vegetarians and vegans among them.

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Since happiness is subjective, the researchers asked the Adventists to record whenever a negative emotion was weighing them down, as well as feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety. The ones who abstained from meat all reported having much less negative emotion, depression, stress, and anxiety than omnivorous members of their church (1).

What's going on here?

The researchers noted two things: First, the vegetarians and vegans had much lower intakes and circulation of arachidonic acid, a substance found only in animal foods that is known to inflame the brain and may contribute to brain disorders like Alzheimer's Disease (2).

They also noted the inclusion of more plant foods in the diets of the meat abstainers may have played into the food and mood connection. Vegetarians are noted for having higher circulating concentrations of antioxidants and less oxidative stress than meat eaters, which is a likely a result of their plant-focused diets (3, 4).

Food And Mood:
Switching From Meat To Plants Brings Results

The Adventist study was interesting, but failed to show an average omnivore could improve their happiness by abstaining from animal foods and embracing fruits and vegetables.

An intervention study has done just that, though, and seems to indicate some pretty convincing cause and effect is at work (5).

Food And Mood Tomato CupThirty nine omnivores were divided up into three groups in the study. The first went on eating meat, dairy, and eggs.

The second ate only one type of meat: fish; they also continued to eat eggs and dairy. The third group ate no meat or eggs, but did eat dairy. The study lasted just two weeks, but had profound effects for the participants.

Although the fish group was slightly happier than the omnivorous group (the difference was not statistically significant), the vegetarians dominated the other two groups in terms of their happiness levels, recording many fewer incidences of depression, anxiety, stress, and also experiencing a much more stable mood, with fewer negative emotional fluctuations in their day to day lives.

So it seems reasonable to say that embracing even a moderate dietary improvement like going vegetarian and replacing the removed meat with calories from whole plant foods can make you feel appreciably happier in a fairly short amount of time.

Food and Mood:

Can A Healthier Body Lead To A Healthier Mind?

If you're going to undergo a dietary shift like going vegetarian for health reasons, it's easy to imagine it would cause stress. After all, patients might fear giving up meat will lead to social isolation, trouble eating out at restaurants, or a decrease in the enjoyment they derive from meals.

Researchers feared this result when they placed a group of rheumatoid arthritis sufferers on vegetarian diets in a study and compared them to omnivores with the same disorder (6).

So they were surprised when at the end of the year-long study, the patients on the vegetarian diets not only had significantly reduced their arthritis symptoms, but were testing much better than the omnivores on their GHQ-20 test, a screening device used by doctors for identifying minor psychiatric and mood disorders like depression as well as emotional stability and stress.

The researchers noted the possibility that arachidonic acid was at play here, but also felt there was another significant possibility: that people who feel like they're inhabiting a healthy, vital body free of major pains and diseases will feel happier than those who are more ill.

Food and Mood Researcher Conclusions

"Another possibility is that the patients in the vegetarian group experienced less psychological distress because of the clinical improvement. It is reasonable to assume that less pain, shorter duration of morning stiffness, better grip strength and less disability would impose less psychological distress on patients (6).

I think the above conclusion is something of an understatement, and really just scratches the surface the joys low fat raw vegans experience. Are you still suffering with colds every winter? I haven't had one since 2005 when I started eating this way, and I can't say I miss all those sore throats and the inability to breath.

My body also looks better, is stronger, and recovers much faster from soreness brought on by exercise. I have way more energy to do what I love, so it's only natural that I should be happier while experiencing health.

Having once been borderline obese and stricken by colitis, severe headaches, backaches, and numerous other problems, the difference is profound. When your body is vital, you feel the possibilities of life more keenly, and a vegetarian diet, although an improvement, doesn't come close to taking you to your potential.

Escape your disease today.

Food and Mood:

The Fruit And Vegetable Connection

Depressed? A big part of your problem, regardless of what mood-depressing foods you may be eating, is that you're probably not eating nearly enough whole fruits and vegetables. The more you eat, the happier you tend to be (7).

One common explanation for this is that the high antioxidant intake from colorful fruits and veggies prevents oxidative stress, which causes problems in the brain, dips in mood, and depression (10). And the less folate (found in green vegetables) you have in your system, the more likely you are to be sad (11, 12), so those huge salads are important too.

Even women on weight loss diets (who are presumably hungry) are happier when on carbohydrate-rich, low-fat vegetarian diets with lots of fruits and vegetables compared the more omnivorous, higher-fat weight loss group they were compared against (8).

It simply pays to eat whole fruits and vegetables.

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Although juice is not whole, it's interesting that just 250 ml of date juice can significantly lift mood, makes a person calmer and more content, and even lead to small improvements (measured in milliseconds) on their reaction time on memory tests (9).

How many fruits and vegetables is enough? There's no good research for us to draw a line in the sand, but I'd personally say if you're not reimagining what a normal healthy meal looks like and embracing a raw food diet you're not going to reach your potential.

Food And Mood:

Are All Plant Foods Good For Mood?

Food and mood is a complex subject, and just because, generally speaking, fruits and vegetables are the best for creating a solid baseline of happiness, there's no evidence that all plant foods are good for mood.

For instance, heavily-processed and fatty foods, even if they're processed from plants, cause more depression than less-processed, lower-fat foods.

Food And Mood Veggie SpreadIn one study, subjects who ate the most processed food had the highest chance (60%) of depression. The less processed junk and the more whole foods consumed but the subjects, the less likely they were to be depressed (13).

Another problematic plant food that surprises many is grains, even in their whole state. Grains are noted for causing many health problems, but their roll in affecting the mind is not well studied.

Most grains contain addictive opioids. Wheat, for instance, has been found to contain at least 15 opioid peptides (14). In human and animal studies they've shown the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and affect the central nervous system, which has the potential to alter our mood, perception, cognition, and behavior (15).

In an interview with raw food health.net Victoria Everett explained how she can more or less turn on and off the schizophrenic voices in her head by including or removing certain foods from her diet, one of which is bread, which certainly seems to point to a pretty convincing food and mood connection.

Increasingly, a number of mental disorders such as cerebellar ataxia, peripheral neuropathy, schizophrenia, and autism are being linked to gluten (found in most types of grains), and some patients removing it from their diets have seen an improvement or abatement of symptoms. The correlation between gluten and mental illness remains highly controversial, however, with some researchers maintaining that there is no connection whatsoever (16).

Food And Mood:

Low Fat, High Carbs Diets Improve Your Mood

A low fat, high carbohydrate diet, raw or cooked, is far superior to a high fat, low carbohydrate diet in terms of blood sugar stability (which plays a big part in how we feel), and other diseases and disorders. Yet being properly fueled by carbohydrates from fruit and keeping our fat intake low is also critical for mood stability and mental performance.

Subjects fed a low fat, high carbohydrate breakfast fare better than those consuming medium fat/carb breakfasts and high fat, low carb breakfast in mood and mental performance. They experienced less mental fatigue and dysphoria in the hours after the meal than the high-fat participants (17).

In Another study subjects were "less vigorous, imaginative, and antagonistic, and significantly more dreamy, feeble, and fatigued after the lower energy high-fat, low-(carb) meal than after the higher energy low-fat, high-(carb) meal. These results suggest that in the morning, fat exerts a greater depression on alertness and mood than carbohydrate irrespective of a reduction in energy content..." (18).


The same goes for athletes. A group of female cyclists spent a week eating either a low carb, high fat diet, medium carb/fat diet, or high carb, low fat diet, and then rotated through the other two dietary styles for a total of three weeks (19).

When eating the low carb, high fat diets the cyclists experienced significantly more tension, depression, anger, and worse overall mood scores than when they were eating medium carb/fat and high cab/low fat diets.

It can be argued that the lack of carbohydrates or the overabundance of fat is the cause of this effect, but at the end of the day it doesn't really matter very much. The more fat you eat, the smaller the percentage of your diet derived from carbohydrates is, and the more carbs you eat, the less fat you're consuming. It's hard to achieve low fat without high carb and vice versa.

Food and Mood: Following Up

The single most effective dietary strategy I know of for creating an advantageous food and mood boost is adopting a low fat raw vegan diet, which will also benefit your overall health. It maximizes carbohydrate intake, lowers fat intake, and puts all the right foods in your body. In short, it's going to leave you feeling great.

Learn what foods are ideal for mental and physical health, and which should be avoided.

I once suffered from depression, and although dietary changes made a difference, it wasn't until I started changing my lifestyle for the better that things really started to change. I write how I made this shift in The Raw Food Lifestyle.

Food and Mood: Sources

Want to look into the studies mentioned? The citations for this food and mood article are all listed here.

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