Diet and Mood: Garbage In; Garbage Out

I once saw a physician (Dr. X) who consulted me for depressed mood. He had no energy; he couldn’t get motivated; his mood was flat; his concentration was poor; and his performance at work was suffering. He noticed that he just didn’t care about the people anymore, and this was very unlike him.

I understand the extreme pressures on healthcare workers and the risks of burnout and depression. I reviewed Dr. X’s history, and there was nothing that stood out as an obvious contributor to his complaints. I reviewed his stressors, and there was nothing out of the ordinary except a complete lack nutritional health. Dr. X was skipping breakfast. He was not drinking water or anything else on a regular basis — except plenty of caffeinated beverages. He was eating garbage (chips and grab and go food) for lunch, and he was grabbing whatever was available for dinner.

At our first visit, I asked Dr. X to do one thing — improve his nutritional intake. I asked him to eat something healthy for breakfast. I asked him to carry a water bottle throughout the day and drink plenty of water. I also asked him to carry a protein bar in his pocket to eat if he couldn’t sit for lunch. I asked Dr. X to be thoughtful about what he was eating and drinking until I saw him again. (Note: I did not recommend a medication consultation.)

Two weeks later, Dr. X reported that he’d done as I asked, and all of his symptoms of depressed mood were gone. True story. No exaggeration.

Typically — over Christmas — I work extra hard to limit indulgence in sweets. (I work on this all the time, but there are more temptations during the holidays.) This year was unusual in that we had many gifts of homemade goodies in our home, and we had no one to share with. After dipping into the stash several times and feeling guilty, I decided to give myself permission to eat as much as I wanted, which I did for about 7 days.

During those 7 days, I was on a sugar high and junk bender. Each day I would delight in the immediate pleasure of taste indulgence, and by the evening, I felt lethargic and unmotivated. I would get up in the morning feeling like I had an alcohol hangover. I was nauseated in the middle of the night. I had frequent awakenings with anxiety and stomachaches. In the morning, I had no energy and felt lousy until lunch when I would treat myself to more sugar. The cycle continued because my drug of choice (sugar) was there in unlimited supply.

After 7 days, I was bloated and generally felt miserable. My mood was low. My energy was low. My activity was abysmal, and my anxiety was sky high. I felt guilty and excessively worried, but I didn’t know why.

Bottom line: What we put into our bodies has a direct effect on our mood, energy, and overall sense of well-being. I am not saying that all depression and anxiety are caused by diet. What I am saying is that nutrition and dietary intake have a strong relationship with depressed and anxious mood.

The good news: We can improve our mood by eating and drinking healthy.

The bad news: Healthy eating and drinking is hard work — very much like overcoming addiction.

I am not saying that a person shouldn’t have any sugar. What I am saying is that when we feel lousy, unmotivated, and generally sluggish, perhaps a good place to start is paying attention to what we are putting into our bodies. A good place to start is recognizing that sugar affects mood. While there may be an initial feel good boost from sugar, the associated hangover lasts much longer and comes with real emotional (if not physical) pain. Sugar creates cravings for more sugar, and it is a vicious cycle.

When you think of self-care this year, consider what you are putting into your body. That old saying “garbage in; garbage out” absolutely applies to what you can expect from yourself. If you feed your body for health, your body will feed your hopes and intentions for health. If you feed your body trash, you will likely produce trash.

If you want to know more about my ideas for breaking bad habits in 2021 with mindfulness, humor, and profanity (it ain’t easy), check out Move on Motherf*cker: Live, Laugh, and Let Sh*t Go available now at Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, or NewHarbinger.com.

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Jodie Eckleberry-Hunt, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.

Jodie Eckleberry-Hunt, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.

Author of Move on Motherf*cker: Live, Laugh, and Let Sh*t Go. Using CBT, mindfulness, humor, and profanity to feel better. jodieeckleberryhunt.com