Explore how what we eat and how we feel are connected, and discover new tips for supporting your relationship with food.
When we talk about self-care, we often think of activities like taking a hot bath or going to a yoga class. But self-care truly refers to the most basic aspects of tending to the animals that are our bodies, and one of those aspects is food. There is an intimate relationship between food and mood, and it’s one we often take for granted. The kind of food we eat, how much of it we eat, and when we eat it can greatly affect our resilience, ability to rest, hormonal rhythm, and more.
As many of us know, healthy eating habits are often the first habits to go out the window when we’re not feeling well. Eating disorders often accompany anxiety, depression, trauma, and other mental or emotional imbalances. We may seek out comfort food that helps us numb our feelings, even if it makes our stomachs hurt. Sometimes when we’re upset, we can’t eat. Food and mood have a relationship, and it isn’t one-sided.
The Emotions That Surround Food
Food is a highly emotional issue. One of the first things we realize as newborn babies is that food almost always comes with physical touch and comfort. We pick up on our family system’s rules around food very, very early. Is there a fear of weight gain in your family? A pattern of restricting food as a form of punishment? Is food offered instead of comfort and understanding in moments of stress? We learn these things not only intellectually, but at the level of our nervous systems. These patterns are incredibly common and can make it very challenging to have an easy, healthy relationship with food.
In an ideal world, we have an abundance of food and can follow our body’s cues around when we are hungry and when we are full. Cravings are demonized in our culture, but they are often signals from your body letting you know what you need. Craving carbs can mean you need some easily accessible calories. Craving sugar can mean you’re tired and your body is trying to rebalance. Craving specific foods—like oranges, for example—can indicate a vitamin or mineral that the body wants (like vitamin C). Chocolate and cheese have mood-lifting qualities, so we may crave them when we’re feeling sad. Rather than ignoring your cravings, try to figure out the need they are communicating.
Tips to Support Your Mood With Food
In addition to all this, it’s helpful to understand that eating regularly will help balance our blood sugar, hormones, and emotions, at least to a degree. Here are some tips to help your food help you.
Eat breakfast, ideally within the first hour or so of waking. Even a small snack will help. Protein and fiber will keep you feeling full for longer and help moderate blood sugar.
If you have coffee in the morning, eating something with it can help smooth out the caffeine spike, which stimulates stress hormones.
Eat enough at each meal that you are full for a couple of hours. Eat again 3-5 hours later for an average of three meals a day, with a snack.
Sugar can mess with your energy and mood, but much less so if you avoid eating it on an empty stomach. That may be why milk and cookies are such a classic pair—the protein and fat from the milk helps to slow down the sugar rush from the cookies.
If you’re feeling upset, angry, or frustrated, ask yourself when you last ate. Do you need a snack? This is as important for toddlers as it is for adults!
Try to have a balance of protein, fat, and fiber at each meal.
Do your best to listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, but be gentle with yourself, especially if you have a history of ignoring those signals. It can take time to get to know them again.
Get help from a registered dietician, doctor, or therapist if you have disordered eating patterns. They can help you work through the root causes of your stress and find useful strategies for feeling better.