Since the 1820s, we have been told that we are what we eat (Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, 1826, in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante). And many people joke to not disturb them until they’ve had their morning cup or two of coffee, but much of the time we give little thought to how the foods and beverages we ingest affect our physical health, our mental health, our emotional health and our productivity at work.
As far as our physical health goes, eating a diet rich in sugar (25 percent of the daily diet) results in an increased risk of heart disease, according to Harvard Health, not to mention an increase in diabetes risks and its complications, weight gain, more cavities, higher blood pressure and the prompting of the liver to dump more harmful fats into the blood stream.
Contrast that with neuroscience findings that have shown that polyphenols–abundant micronutrients that are found in most vegetables– help prevent degenerative diseases like cancer and cardiovascular illnesses and improve cognitive functions and help combat depression. Foods like avocados contain tryptophan which normalizes levels of serotonin which also helps relieve depression symptoms.
Nutritionist Danielle Brooks, N.T.P., C.H., author of Good Decisions Most of the Time: because life is too short not to eat chocolate and founder of Lake Washington Wellness Center, tells PsychCentral, “When you repeatedly eat a food, your affinity toward it will increase. When you decrease the repetition at which you consume it, your appetite for it will decrease. It’s like escalation of tolerance levels in reverse.” Choosing nutrient-rich foods like berries and apples and leafy greens and lean protein will make you crave these foods, the same way that ice cream makes you crave more sugary treats or a few sips of alcohol may increase the taste for more.
Sugars and simple carbohydrates–which convert to sugar in our bodies–affect our mental health. Studies have linked an increase in bipolar disorder symptoms to diets high in carbohydrates and low in protein and to diets high in calories and fat. Brooks explains, “Sugar and the insulin response affect the brain directly. When sweets are consumed regularly, insulin crosses the brain-blood barrier, where it regulates how your brain uses and stores sugar for energy needed to fuel thoughts and emotions. Consuming large amounts of sugar, especially in the form of fructose corn syrup, can interfere with insulin’s ability to regulate neurological processes that control memory and learning. In short, a high fructose or sugar diet sabotages learning and memory.” It also can create mood swings with a temporary high followed by a crashing low.
And when our mental health and thought processes become frustrating, often our emotional health suffers as well. Have you ever felt irritable and not known why? Or suddenly anxious? Have you thought about what you ingested in the hour before? Studies have linked both sugars and caffeine to irritability and anxiety, in addition to sleep disruption and plummeting moods.
When we find ourselves without clear thought processes and feeling emotional or lacking in energy, our productivity decreases and we become less effective at our jobs. To combat these feelings and the potential drop in productivity, companies like Google stock healthy snacks such as trail mix and fruit in their break rooms and they keep these items front and center for their employees to consume. Brooks recommends eating small amounts of protein throughout the day (every two hours) to help curb cravings for sweets. Proteins digest slowly, which keeps you feeling full for longer and stabilizes your blood sugar levels, which stabilizes your moods and helps you focus on the tasks you must get done.
So the next time you are preparing breakfast at the start of your day or packing lunch or snacks to take to the office, stop for a moment and ask yourself, how will these food items affect me? What effects would I like from what I eat? And then craft a meal or a snack that will be the best help in reaching that goal.