We’ve all heard the short version of the nutrition mantra, “We are what we eat.” What we’re really saying, however, is that our health and mood are reflections of what we have eaten and what we have not eaten.
We can be deficient in both macro nutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) and micro nutrients (vitamins and minerals). These deficiencies can lead to symptoms associated with depression, behavioral issues, stress, and physical illnesses. For example, what we eat can lower or raise serotonin, dopamine, or norepinephrine – neurotransmitters in our brain that control our ability to relax, resist food cravings, or maintain energy and alertness. What we put in our mouth can also affect how well our red blood cells carry oxygen to our body, and how well we convert food to energy. Poor management of either of these will make us feel tired, weak, confused, moody, or any and all of the above.
Deficiencies don’t come just from not eating the right foods. When we are in a stressful situation, our body uses specific vitamins, minerals, and nutrients in much greater amounts, leaving us in a depleted state. Without those essential nutrients our brain, muscles, and cells cannot function optimally. Instead of taking lots of over-the-counter pills to cover-up our symptoms, we can get to the root of the problem by choosing foods that will make us feel our best. (Note: If you have debilitating fatigue, depression, or other illnesses, absolutely see your doctor.) Making up for our nutritional deficiencies can help us feel more energetic, happy, and well-balanced.
Energy Eats: Foods that spark your energy
B1 (Thiamin): This vitamin helps us convert carbohydrates into energy for the body, brain, and nervous system. When we run low, we can feel fatigued and weak. Foods high in B1 include: Sesame butter (tahini), tuna fish, pork chops, sunflower seeds, pistachios, pecans, navy beans, black beans, dried peas, pinto beans, lentils, lima beans, sesame seeds.
Water: Most Americans walk around with chronic mild dehydration; even just two percent dehydration can lead to fatigue, poor performance, headaches, and foggy thinking. To figure out how much to drink, divide your weight in half to get the number of ounces you should be drinking per day. (Example: 150 pounds/ 2 = 75 ounces of needed fluids). Don’t forget that tea, milk, and soups count as part of your fluid intake, as do water-packed fruits.
Magnesium: This mineral is needed for over 300 biochemical reactions in the body. It helps maintain nerve and muscle function, supports a healthy immune system, helps keep bones strong, helps to regulate blood sugar, promotes good blood pressure, and helps to convert food into energy. Foods high in magnesium include green leafy veggies, almonds, cashews, soybeans, bran flakes, oatmeal, peanuts/peanut butter, potatoes, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, and brown rice. Refined grains are much lower in magnesium than whole grains.
Calming Cuisine: Foods to calm the nerves
Carbohydrates: After eating carbohydrates, insulin in our body triggers an infusion of the amino acid tryptophan into our brain, which then causes a release of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. This is the calming chemical that helps us better cope with life’s stress and anxiety. Without carbohydrates, our body actually cannot produce serotonin. This is why when we are feeling sad, anxious or nervous, many times we want to reach for foods like bread. It’s also why many low-carb dieters tend to feel tense, depressed, and angry after a few weeks of swearing off grains. Go for whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole grain cereals quinoa, millet, and fruit.
Whey Protein: Whey is the liquid that is left behind after milk has been curdled and strained. It contains protein, minerals, vitamins, and sometimes lactose (depending on if it has been ‘soured’ or not). There are some promising studies showing that consuming whey protein may help your body release more serotonin. Whey protein is found in dairy products and whey protein powder. Want to make your own whey liquid? Squeeze the juice of one lemon or orange into a quart or a pint of milk. When the curd is hard, pour through a sieve to separate the liquid whey from the curd.
Iron: According to the World Health Organization, iron is the number one nutrition deficiency in the world. Iron is an essential part of red blood cells which carry oxygen to our cells. Oxygen is necessary to help us create energy, so without enough oxygen (and iron to shuttle it around), we start feeling tired, irritable, and have trouble concentrating. Turn to red meat, egg yolks, turkey, and mollusks; dark leafy greens; raisins and prunes; beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, and artichokes. (When trying to get iron from greens, beans, and other vegetable sources, be sure to eat them cooked, which helps release the iron that is bound to the fiber, as well as with sources of vitamin C, such as tomatoes and citrus fruit, as vitamin C helps iron to be absorbed into our body.)
Smart Sustenance: Foods for your brain
Tyrosine: This amino acid helps synthesize dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps with the brain with movement control, emotional response, and ability to experience pleasure or pain. It also make us more focused, concentrated, and alert. Try spirulina, egg whites, cottage cheese, salmon, turkey, shrimp, mustard greens, and chicken.
Produce: A study done by Harvard Medical School looked at over 13,000 women, over the age of 25, showing that those who ate relatively large amounts of fruits and vegetables had less age-related decline in memory. Cruciferous veggies and leafy greens had the biggest effect: Try cauliflower, cabbage, cress, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, kohlrabi, turnip, rutabaga, canola/rapeseed, maca, radish, daikon, and arugula. Choose all different colored fruits and veggies to give your body a whole array of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Choline: This is a water-soluble vitamin that is typically grouped with the B-complex vitamins. It’s used to make acetylcholine in the brain, a chemical that allows us to learn, remember, regulate our mood, and control how well we move. (We also need glucose from carbs to produce acetylcholine). Foods high in choline: The yolk of eggs, beef, Atlantic cod, salmon, turkey, soy flour.
Diet Downers: Foods that make us feel sluggish, tired, or anxious
Refined/Processed Carbohydrates: When we eat foods high in refined carbs, our blood sugar spikes leaving us feeling euphoric, but then it crashes leaving us feeling tired and moody. Watch out for big bagels, pastries, donuts, cookies, some crackers and chips, candy, sugary drinks, sugary cereals, and refined grains such as white bread.
Portion Distortion: After a big meal, more energy and blood is needed to help us digest, leaving us feeling listless and less alert. Some people call this a food coma, also known as postprandial fatigue, or postprandial somnolence. Other factors are at play here as well, but the best way to fight a food coma is small, frequent meals and snacks throughout the day. Have small meals and snacks including lean proteins for lasting energy (low fat/fat free yogurt, cottage cheese; poultry, fish, beans, tofu, seeds, nuts, eggs) as well as whole grains for quick energy (fruits, veggies, whole wheat breads, and whole grains).
Put in what you want to get out.
There are, of course, many other nutrients and foods that affect our mood. These are just a great way to start feeling more well-balanced. With good foods you can tackle your day with more energy, alertness, and calm.
Rachel Gargano is a registered dietitian working with triathlon coach Jesse Kropelnicki of TheCoreDiet.com and QT2Systems.com. She is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and a Wellness Coach. Visit TheCoreDiet.com to explore how they can add a nutrition component to your coaching business and help your athletes achieve better body composition, health, and performance goals.