Our brains, like every part of our body, are affected by what we eat. Just like refined carbs, or sugary foods, give our bodies a quick jolt of energy and complex carbs provide them with more sustained strength, simple and complex carbs fuel our brains in much the same way.
Head Off the Afternoon Crash
Have you ever experienced that cranky, low-energy period in the late afternoon when your concentration begins to wane? A few hours after lunch is when your blood sugar drops and you’re just plain hungry.
The reason for this, says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, a registered dietitian and the director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic, is a chemical called galanin, which tends to rise in the mid-afternoon to evening, increasing your desire for high-fat, high-calorie food. But don’t reach for that Twinkie just yet. Making the right snack choice can have a significant impact on your state of mind.
“Eating simple sugars or highly processed carbs provides a quick spike and drop in blood sugar response, which leads to low levels of the brain chemical serotonin,” Jamieson-Petonic says. “And low serotonin levels lead to feeling bad, crabby and irritable.” Serotonin is involved in the regulation of mood, sleep and appetite; low levels of serotonin are linked with depression and anxiety.
A better choice for a mid-afternoon snack is a combination of complex carbohydrates and protein, which will keep you fuller longer, so you won’t be distracted by hunger pangs any time soon. Plus, you’ll be more productive — your brain needs the glucose found in carbohydrates to function properly.
You know what else will leave you cranky, regardless of the time of day? Skipping carbs entirely. Researchers at MIT found that when you stop eating carbohydrates, your brain stops regulating serotonin. Only carbohydrate consumption naturally stimulates production of serotonin. Women, because they have less serotonin in their brains than men do to begin with, are therefore more susceptible to depression and anxiety issues.
To maintain normal serotonin levels, Jamieson-Petonic advises that you eat every three to four hours (and yes, make sure there are some complex carbs on your plate each time).
Curb Your Cravings
When you experience a food craving, as all of us do from time to time, it’s important to satisfy those desires in a healthy way — think whole-grain granola bars or fruit, instead of cookies or soft drinks. Why? Researchers are finding that part of the obesity epidemic in the U.S. is caused by the frequent and regular consumption of sugary and high-fat foods.
While this news is probably not that surprising, the reasons behind it might give you the willpower to forgo that doughnut or pasta carbonara. Studies by Swedish researchers found that the frequent intake of highly refined foods that are packed with sugar and fat blunts our satiety signals and activates our reward system. Repeatedly eating these types of food offsets normal appetite regulation, causing us to eat more — and more. Activating the reward system indicates that this type of food has become the equivalent of a drug for the body, in the same way alcohol is to an alcoholic — you need it to make you feel good.
The best way to break this unhealthy cycle is to start — one day, or even one meal, at a time — eating a healthy, balanced diet filled with complex carbs, lean proteins and low-fat foods. When a food craving hits, take a moment and ask yourself what you’re really feeling — are you eating due to stress or anxiety? (A relaxation exercise might do the trick.) If you’re actually hungry, are you yearning for something crunchy? Something sweet? Something salty? Try substituting a more high-fiber, low-fat choice with similar attributes, and take the time to enjoy your snack bit by bit, focusing on the flavor and texture.