We’re all aware of the food and mood connection. We’ve certainly all witnessed in horror as a usually caring but hungry loved one contorts into some kind of monstrous ogre. At the same time, we cower behind the couch, tossing treats in the beast’s general direction, in the vague hope that a bit of sugar can quell their hangry rage.
Don’t make me hangry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m hangry.— The Incredible Sulk
But is feeling hangry a real thing, or is it just an excuse for ogreish behavior? Does food really affect your mood? Can your diet make you depressed? What is the connection between food and mental health? So many questions, and one little article, so let’s get started.
Is Feeling Hangry Actually a Thing?
If you’ve never heard of being hangry, it’s the ever so clever merging of the words ‘hungry’ and ‘angry.’
Hanger is the feeling that turns rational people into irritable, short-fused grumps. And yes, it is an actual thing. Hangry is a real word, added to the Oxford Dictionary in the vintage year of 2017, along with ‘mansplain’ and ‘selfie.’
So yes, it seems pretty well accepted that hunger can affect the emotion of a person. But is hunger the true culprit for those negative feelings? Or is it another little monster, low blood sugar?
Why Do I Get Hangry?
It’s not necessarily hunger that causes hanger, but rather low blood sugar levels.
When your blood sugar level drops, your body releases the hormones cortisol and epinephrine in an attempt to inspire you to seek out glucose. You may know epinephrine as ‘adrenaline,’ while cortisol is commonly known as the stress hormone, so it’s no surprise that an increase in both leads to a spot of agitation.
But besides alienating your nearest and dearest, why is feeling hangry bad? Well, hanger can have severe repercussions for your health.
First off, being hangry is basically being stressed, and stress itself is bad, isn’t it? It’s linked to higher incidences of headaches, high blood pressure, asthma, skin conditions, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and heart problems – to name a few. In fact, it’s estimated that up 90% of all doctor’s visits are for stress-related issues.
Secondly, when your blood glucose levels drop, your body naturally sends signals to rectify the situation ASAP. Unfortunately, that means that cookies and candy start looking irresistible. The problem is that sugary snacks will solve the problem, but only in the short term – by raising your blood sugar rapidly.
Why is a short-term solution a problem? Because rapid spikes in blood glucose lead to rapid drops – and before you know it, you’re stuck in a perpetual cycle of munching down a diet of M and Ms and Coca-Cola just to keep the hanger monster at bay.
This reliance on sugary treats and convenient but highly processed food can lead to an increased risk of all kinds of long-term health problems, including obesity and type II diabetes. Not only that, but lousy food habits could lead to something more sinister – food addiction.
What Is Food Addiction?
In some way, everyone could call themselves a food addict. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I definitely have trouble living without the stuff. But, flippancy aside, the idea of food addiction as an eating disorder has gained a lot of traction in recent years (although it remains a contentious topic).
So is food addiction the same as compulsive overeating or binge eating? Or is it more akin to drug addiction? Let’s take a look at a couple of definitions:
- Drug – any substance that has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body.
- Food – any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb to maintain life and growth.
So, in a way, it’s fair to say that while not all drugs are food, all foods are drugs.
And for a food addict, certain foods can trigger the same reward and pleasure centers of the brain that fire in the dopamine system of cocaine and heroin users.
Junk food and highly processed foods rich in sugar, fat, and salt appear to be particularly linked to increased dopamine transmission (and the cynic would argue they’re designed that way).
The reward signals from addictive food override signals of fullness, and because it’s often nutritionally empty, people keep eating, even when they’re not hungry.
Once someone experiences the pleasure of that dopamine rush, coupled with the crashing blood glucose levels, and the ready availability of highly palatable food, it’s a perfect storm for an eating disorder like compulsive overeating or food addiction.
Am I a Food Addict?
Here are some common signs of food addiction from the Yale Food Addiction Scale:
- Keep eating certain foods even if you’re no longer hungry
- Binge eating to the point of feeling ill
- When certain foods aren’t available, you get withdrawal symptoms or go out of your way to get them.
Remember, food addiction is still a debated condition, and suffering from obesity doesn’t mean you have a binge eating disorder. So before declaring yourself a food addict, know that there are many ways to address unhealthy food habits, and educating yourself on nutrition and food psychology can help a lot (our free masterclass with Eric Edmeades is an excellent place to start).
However, if you’re concerned about your eating behavior, have developed unhealthy eating habits, or suspect you have an eating disorder, do not hesitate to consult your doctor.
The Food and Mood Connection and Nutritional Psychiatry
So we’ve seen how the food mood connection can make you angry or elated; how your diet can cause depressive symptoms; how processed food can lead to mood disorder, but how can a healthy diet improve our mental wellbeing?
Question…How many brains do you have? Just one? Think again. And maybe use your gut feeling this time.
Yup, your second brain (otherwise known as the enteric nervous system) is nestled within the walls of your alimentary canal (otherwise known as your gut).
We call it the second brain because it’s made up of the same cells that power the brain – neurons. In fact, the second brain contains more neurons than either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system. True story.
So gut health isn’t just about getting enough nutrients and looking after the bacteria of your gut microbiome; it’s also crucial for your mental wellbeing.
There’s a lot of research going into how the gut affects serotonin levels and mental health disorders like depression. The functions of the second brain open up new fields of nutritional psychiatry and psychology and highlight more than ever the importance of the food we eat for mental health.
Food for Mental Health
Nutritional scientists increasingly highlight the dangerous impact of inflammation caused by dietary factors. There’s evidence to suggest that some forms of depression could actually be a symptom of chronic inflammation.
So what can we do to decrease the levels of inflammation in our bodies? It’s quite simple. Eat a healthy diet. That means cutting out the crap and replacing it with highly nutritious, healthy food.
Cut out inflammatory foods like sugary food, artificial trans fats, refined carbohydrates, processed meat, and excessive alcohol – the usual suspects.
In terms of foods to add, some of the best foods for mental health and to combat low mood are omega 3 fats or fatty acids. A Mediterranean diet is one of the best at supplying these healthy fats due to its high content of oily fish and leafy green plant foods combined with a generally healthy dietary pattern.
If you’re interested in learning more about what makes up a good diet for the brain, check out this advice from Dr. Daniel Amen.
The odds are, you’ve heard this all before, but if you’re reading this, you probably haven’t found a way to turn the knowledge into practice. Fortunately, we know a man who can help you with that.