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Here are some key findings based upon recent research to help you understand how mood and food go hand-in-hand.

Many of the effects of food on mood are shrouded in folklore, but the influence of food on mood is related to our actual attitudes toward particular foods. The ambivalent relationship that we have with food-wanting to enjoy it but conscious of possible weight gain is a struggle influenced by the brain.

There is some evidence to support the various claims that the balance of protein and carbohydrate consumed in a meal can affect the synthesis and activity of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin that improves mood. However, other results suggest that the variations in protein and carbohydrate intake achieved by eating real foods are insufficient to affect brain serotonergic function significantly. Studies have shown that the ratio of fat to carbohydrate in a meal significantly affects mood, alertness and mental performance. Similarly, studies on caffeine found that repeatedly pairing the consumption of a fruit juice drink with caffeine, improved mood and increased consumers' final preference for the drink. These results show that the mood effects of eating and drinking reinforce dietary preferences that benefit mood. In other words, the effects of food on mood help to shape food preferences.

Certain individuals may be particularly vulnerable to patterns of unhealthy eating-for example, those under stress. The effect of stress on food intake depends on the individual, the stressor and the circumstances. The proposed mechanisms for stress-induced changes in eating and food choice are motivational differences (reduced concern about weight control), physiological (reduced appetite caused by the processes associated with stress) and practical changes in eating opportunities, food availability and meal preparation.

In community based studies, some adults report under-eating while others overeat when stressed. Stress may also increase consumption of snack foods (high fat, sugar and/or salt) even where the overall tendency is to eat less. For the dieter, it evokes lapses in compliance and may in fact lead to stress induced eating (SIE). Risk of SIE can be increased through dieting. Laboratory research suggests that some people typically restrain themselves around food (restrained eaters) and others tend to find relief from emotional stress through eating (emotional eaters). Under stress, restrained eaters tend to eat more than non-restrained eaters when the food provided is snack food.

Women more commonly report food cravings than do men, and depressed mood appears to influence the severity of these cravings. Reports of food cravings are more common in the premenstrual phase, a time when total food intake increases and a parallel change in basal metabolic rate occurs. However, studies do not consistently show that carbohydrate-rich foods, thought to alleviate depressed mood, are preferentially chosen at this time. Restrained eaters, who suffer from premenstrual mood changes, are particularly prone to food cravings. Consequently, psychological factors are strong determinants of foods craved that tend to be high in fat and sweet tasting.

In general, hunger and energy intake is not significantly increased post-exercise. This suggests there is a role for exercise in weight loss and weight control. Yet inappropriate food choices probably explains why physical activity often produces disappointing effects. Exercise induces some improvement in mood independent of age, gender and mode of exercise. There are many possible physiological suggestions (e.g. neurotransmitters, endorphins) via which exercise has such a beneficial effect on mood, but recent evidence indicates that psychological factors, such as perceived fitness, have a strong influence on exercise-induced mood changes.

Food choice is influenced by various physiological, social and cultural factors and is not determined solely by whether people consider a food to be healthy or not. Mood is just one factor that can impact on food preferences, food cravings, dietary behavior and short and long term responses to dietary intervention.

Source: British Nutrition Foundation

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