You’ve polished off a batch of grandma’s beloved cookies when the feeling hits. It’s not happiness, though it should be. You’re experiencing a mix of guilt, anxiety and sluggishness, with an all-around bad mood that’s far from the comfort you were seeking. And when you’re staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic, the last thing you need is another thing to feel bad about. What gives?
The idea of comfort food sounds great in theory, but many of society’s favorite feel-good foods lack ideal nutrients. This leaves eaters feeling cranky, not comforted. (And to be clear, we’re not talking about depression, a more serious condition you should talk to your doctor about.)
“Some of the main dietary contributors to low or bad mood are too much sugar and too many starchy and refined carbohydrates,” British nutritional therapist Claudia Smith told HuffPost. “If you eat too much of these foods, you can end up with blood sugar spikes and crashes, which can lead to symptoms such as low mood, irritability, brain fog, anxiety, fatigue and difficulty concentrating.”
Why Comfort Foods Can Leave Us Agitated
Common comfort foods such as cookies or french fries activate reward triggers in our brains, Smith said. They give us something to look forward to or get excited about — which is largely why comfort-food sales spiked as the anxiety-inducing COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Psychologist and U.K.-based well-being consultant Lee Chambers told HuffPost that comfort foods do provide a hit of pleasure-inducing dopamine, but that pleasure is fleeting.
“Emotional eating is a cyclical process where low mood leads to eating foods likely to spike your blood sugar, giving us a dose of dopamine, but then it drops at the same time as we start to feel guilty,” Chambers told HuffPost. “This combination often makes us feel a lack of satisfaction, with feelings of guilt, shame and regret.”
Even worse? Comfort foods often lead to overeating. “Over time, high consumption of highly palatable foods may actually lead to a reduced sensitivity of this brain-reward response,” Smith said. “You may find yourself needing to eat more and more to experience the same effect.”
8 Foods And Drinks That Could Worsen Your Mood
Bad-mood-inducing comfort foods share a few things in common. They often cause sugar spikes, then crashes, which leads to sluggishness, anxiety and irritability. But the mood-worsening effect is more than physiological. Many people think of certain foods as either healthy or unhealthy. When they eat the unhealthy ones, they can feel ashamed, sad or angry.
Moderation is key, said Tai Ibitoye, a dietitian registered in the U.K. “Regular and excessive consumption of foods that are high in fat and sugar may negatively influence mood, but eating just one cookie can provide pleasure and comfort to some people,” she told HuffPost.
So which comfort foods and drinks could worsen your mood? Here are eight common culprits.
Small amounts of alcohol can be fine, and may even improve your mood, Ibitoye said. But regular or excessive alcohol consumption can worsen it — which is hardly a surprise to those who’ve experienced a hangover.
Studies show alcohol has some long-term health perks. But no one should start drinking alcohol for its potential benefits, the Mayo Clinic said. It recommends one drink — the equivalent of one 12-ounce beer or one 5-ounce glass of wine — per day.
Soda contains simple sugars that the body absorbs quickly, which leads to a sugar spike followed by severe sluggishness. And simply replacing soda with a diet version is not the solution because sweeteners such as aspartame are often associated with anxiety and depression. One 2014 study showed a link between sweetened beverages and depression among older adults. Water and tea are better beverage alternatives.
Ibitoye recommended limiting beverages such as caffeinated tea and coffee and replacing that extra cup with a decaf version. Caffeinated beverages such as coffee cause the brain to release dopamine and serotonin, according to Medical Daily. This is fine in small doses, but too much — often as little as one extra cup — can lead to irritability, agitation and anxiety.
So how much coffee is too much coffee?
Recommendations are constantly changing, but the Mayo Clinic suggested no more than about four cups of coffee per day.
4. Baked Goods
Cookies and cakes are chock-full of mood-worsening ingredients such as sugar, which “rapidly breaks down into glucose and can trigger blood sugar spikes and crashes,” Smith said. The good news is that decreasing your baked goods intake can yield quick mood-boosting results.
“Try reducing your sugar consumption by giving up cakes, biscuits, sugary drinks or sweeteners for a few days, and notice how you feel,” Smith said. “Beneficial effects can often be felt very quickly, even within a few days.”
5. French Fries
They may be delicious and temporarily comforting, but french fries are full of saturated fats, refined carbohydrates and excess salt. This is the recipe for energy spikes and crashes, with correlated bad moods and exhaustion.
Slow-releasing or complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, brown rice and quinoa can raise blood glucose levels more slowly, Ibitoye said. “Choosing these foods can help the brain receive a more consistent flow of fuel for better functioning,” she said.
6. Processed Foods
Whether it’s chips, Pop-Tarts or pizza bites, ready-to-eat processed foods can cause terrible moods. These items contain high amounts of refined sugars, saturated fats and preservatives.
Together, these ingredients cause energy crashes followed by fatigue and dwindling motivation. That doesn’t mean you should never eat them, though. Smith recommended aiming for a healthy diet, particularly at mealtimes, with a few favorite treats here and there.
Bagels are delicious in the moment, but ingesting the carb-rich food can make you feel heavy, bloated and uncomfortable — and therefore down in the dumps. That’s because bagels are packed with simple carbs, typically made from white grains with little to no nutritional value.
They’ll cause blood sugar spikes followed by crashes and foul moods. Instead of an empty-calorie white bagel, aim for some of Ibitoye’s complex-carb recommendations, such as brown rice and whole-wheat bread.
8. Packaged Deli Meat
Protein is integral to a healthy, happy diet, but some proteins are better than others. Packaged meats and cold cuts are filled with energy-sucking preservatives and additives that cause mood swings and bloating. But alternatives such as lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans and homemade cold cuts (made by roasting and slicing the turkey yourself) can do the trick.
These protein-rich foods can actually improve your mood— leaving you happy, sated and energized. “We need protein from our diet for a lot of different processes, including the production of neurotransmitters such as the feel-good serotonin,” Smith said. “Try to add protein to all of your meals to help balance your sugar response.”