News flash: A recent study has shown a relationship between depression and chocolate consumption. Researchers at the University of California discovered that people who were considered clinically depressed ate twice as much chocolate as the non-depressed control group. So now the researchers want to know whether the chocolate induced the depression or whether the depression induced the desire for chocolate.
This may well be the ultimate no-brainer. It’s no coincidence that the word “mood” shares three letters with “food.” So while scientists waste their time (and somebody’s money) trying to figure out which came first, the mood or the food, I can say unequivocably – after 50-plus years of research – that the food choices I make definitely affect my mood.
Take that chocolate, for example. When I feel my energy or my mood beginning to lag in the mid-afternoon, but without the stomach growling that would justify a full-fledged snack, I’m likely to reach for a piece of chocolate. It’s got to be dark chocolate, however, to be considered an acceptable pick-me-up. That’s because dark chocolate has been shown (in studies I’m not the least bit skeptical about) to be heart healthy as well as an energy booster. Just unwrapping that piece of chocolate makes me feel better. I tell myself that I’m attending to my well-being, both physically and mentally, and that’s a powerful mood enhancer by itself.
But what if I don’t have any chocolate? What if I get home from work, feeling like I need a pick-me-up, and a bag of tortilla chips, a block of cheese, and a jar of salsa lure me into making a plate of nachos? When I’m legitimately hungry, this is one of my favorite indulgences. But when I’m just looking for a mood enhancer, and I fool myself into thinking that this gooey plate of bubbling cheese and salty chips will make me feel better, it usually has the opposite effect. By the time the plate’s empty, and I realize that I’ve consumed a day’s worth of sodium and fat, self-loathing sets in. I might as well just crawl up under the sheets and wait for a new day to begin. But it’s not even dinnertime.
At this point, to salvage the day, I head for Hannaford to find a nice cut of Alaskan salmon to replace whatever meat I’d originally planned to serve for dinner. I also stop by the produce department and grab a big bag of mixed greens to replace whatever carbs were on the menu Salmon, after all, is loaded with Omega 3 and studies have shown that a serving provides a day’s worth of immune-boosting, bone-building Vitamin D, as well. Those mixed greens? Well, we all know they’re just packed with B vitamins and are virtually calorie free. By the end of that meal, I’m back in balance, or so I think. And my mood follows along, like a puppy, wagging its tail at my healthy choices.
While making healthy food choices is an automatic mood lifter, there certainly are times when unhealthy foods can make me feel good. A great example is the Fenway Frank. I’ve read “Fast Food Nation” and I know what’s really lurking inside that cute little frank. Yet I have, as an adult, ordered a hot dog at Fenway Park and consumed the whole darn thing (and I’m sure I will again). This seeming contradiction goes back to childhood, of course. There was just something about slathering mustard on a frank, grasping that doughy bun and taking a bite while I squinted to see Carl Yastrzemski swing at a pitch from my bleacher seat in centerfield. Perhaps during one of those games and one of those bites, Yaz hit a homerun into the centerfield seats – forever cementing the experience of that hot dog in my mind as a positive one.
Of course, that’s the whole premise of comfort foods. They remind us of something positive. And maybe the flood of positive emotion actually stimulates some happy chemical response. Or maybe they simply act as a powerful placebo (which another study just concluded works as well as actual medicine in some instances.) How else to explain why chicken soup always makes me feel better when I’m coming down with a cold? Or why a waffle with peanut butter eases my upset stomach just as it did when I went through bouts of morning sickness?
While there’s no way to make a case for frosting as a health food, I blithely scrape the bowl until it’s clean every time I make a cake. As I do, I feel like I’m 5 again, on my tiptoes, licking frosting (with my fingers, not a knife) from the stainless steel bowl on the kitchen counter. I’m convinced that it isn’t going to kill me. In fact I’m quite sure that – in small doses, anyway – it’s actually as good for my overall well-being as a mixed green salad, a salmon dinner or a piece of dark chocolate.