There’s a reason we call certain foods “comfort foods” ― they have the power to temporarily elevate our spirits. But is there any science behind certain ingredients’ ability to affect our emotions?
“The term ‘comfort foods’ is code for foods that spike your blood sugar and dopamine levels, which can bring a quick, temporary sense of relief when you are feeling upset, anxious or overwhelmed,” said Dr. Georgia Ede, a board-certified psychiatrist and author of ”Change Your Diet, Change Your Mind.”
But ironically, these foods ― which are rich in refined carbohydrates ― are the ones that “drive that emotional discomfort in the first place,” according to Ede.
But there is a category of nutrients that can positively impact people’s dispositions and are scientifically proven to regulate the hormones that affect your mood.
How can food regulate someone’s mood?
According to studies, a food’s mood-regulating properties are directly related to tryptophan, an essential amino acid that the human body cannot produce on its own and must therefore be procured through one’s diet. (You’ve likely heard about tryptophan in turkey at Thanksgiving, when it’s often blamed for causing sleepiness ― tryptophan helps produce melatonin, aka the sleep hormone.) It’s found in many common foods we eat, including oats, bananas, milk, tuna, cheese and chicken.
“Consuming foods high in tryptophan may contribute to increased serotonin levels in the brain to have a positive effect on depression and loneliness,” said Dr. Raj Dasgupta, chief medical advisor at Sleepopolis.
Although Ede conceded that the amino acid does, indeed, affect one’s mood, she was clear about it being more of a regulatory force than a boosting one.
“The brain absorbs tryptophan from the bloodstream and uses some of it to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our emotions,” Ede explained. “Some studies suggest that tryptophan supplements can bring modest mental health benefits, but there are no studies I’m aware of demonstrating that eating tryptophan-rich foods can combat [feeling down].”
Foods that are rich in mood-regulating tryptophan
According to experts, nuts and red meat are two of the foods that are richest in tryptophan, therefore directly related to mood-regulating properties.
Nuts in particular, Ede noted, contain more tryptophan than most other plant foods.
“One ounce of cashews or pistachios contains about 75 mg of tryptophan,” Ede said, specifically comparing the numbers to those associated with turkey, another food connected with the amino acid.
A turkey sandwich could do more to regulate your mood than that pint of ice cream you've been eyeing.
“Chicken and turkey contain tryptophan, which is a building block for serotonin,” Dasgupta said. “Eating chicken or turkey could help your brain produce more serotonin, potentially lifting your mood and making you feel better. Think of it like a natural mood booster.”
Interestingly enough, chicken soup is often referred to as the quintessential comfort food, a rare one that actually contains tryptophan.
“Chicken soup is a classic comfort food that brings up associations of positive relationships and makes us feel less lonely,” Dasgupta said.
So what’s the best food-related way to combat a bad mood?
Ede is quick to point out that the best way to maximize the positive effects of tryptophan-heavy foods is to stay away from processed foods and instead,substitute them with “healthier” choices.
“Replacing high-carbohydrate processed foods with nutritious low-carbohydrate animal foods like red meat is an excellent way to nourish your brain and stabilize your brain chemistry, but there are no studies demonstrating that simply eating red meat fights [a bad mood].”
The relationship between our state of mind and what we eat is a very intricate one that, unfortunately, cannot be broken down easily. That is: There are so many different aspects of our lives, including our diets, that affect the way we think and behave that banking on a single lifestyle choice to ameliorate our moods is just not possible.
That being said, there are steps anyone can take to position themselves to tackle the day in the most positive way possible.
Take, for example, Valentine’s Day. If you’re feeling lonely, you can’t necessarily combat those feelings by eating specific foods.
“There is no such thing as a loneliness-fighting food,” Ede said. “There are high-carbohydrate ‘comfort’ foods that may help you feel temporarily less upset about being lonely, but that relief only lasts a few hours, and these very same foods will keep you on the metabolic roller coaster that drives exaggerated emotional reactions to loneliness and other stressful situations in the first place.”
Staying away from those foods is a great way to avoid the “mood crash” that usually follows their consumption.
In addition to that, working on your disposition toward fellow humans may help your daily state of mind.
“Reaching out, meeting new people, and making meaningful connections is the only way to solve the problem,” Ede suggested. “You will feel much more inclined to do this if you feed your brain properly.”