NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - When most of us eat, we do so with our palates in mind. Who doesn't want their food to be satiating? Even as our meals fuel our bodies.
Some people speak of experiencing extreme comfort as they take in certain foods.
"Foods that have nostalgia, or a certain value from your childhood that you find comforting because your mom or your grandmother made them," said Madeleine Koerner.
But the link between food and how we feel emotionally goes well beyond nostalgia. It turns out that food can affect our mood.
"Yes, and especially if you're not eating a well-balanced diet that includes all of your essential nutrients," said Dr. Lauri Byerley, PhD., RD, a research associate professor of physiology at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine with a doctorate in public health and nutritional sciences.
To be sure, everything we put into our bodies has a chemical effect. And for some, too much caffeine is a non-starter.
"I found myself really not able to complete tasks," said Johnny King as he set outside a coffee house.
Dr. Byerley said caffeine can lift us up. Take chocolate, for instance.
"Yeah, people will get euphoric, maybe, or feel a little bit better from eating chocolate," she said.
But caffeine can also be a downer.
"If you're having 10, 12 cups of coffee a day and you're feeling anxious and down, it may be all that caffeine that you're drinking trying to increase your mood and change your mood," Byerley said.
But the food-mood connection is not just about caffeine. Research suggests other things we consume can affect our mood.
"One hundred percent, there's absolutely no doubt. There's so much science that shows us what we eat directly impacts our mood, our stress levels," said Ochsner Nutrition expert and registered dietician Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD.
Our bodies need certain foods for overall well-being and carbohydrates are among them. The three main types of carbohydrates are sugars, starches, and fiber.
But if the goal is to keep your mood out of the "blue" zone you may want to limit sugary foods at the start of your day.
"That sugar is absorbed very quickly, it increases insulin, and we feel like we've gotten a high from that," Dr. Byerley stated.
But like illicit drugs, the "high" is short-lived.
"In that office kitchen, you've got - everybody has it - there's going to be cakes, cupcakes, donuts, cookies. So when we have that big load of sugar, especially when we're on close to an empty stomach, we're having that rapid surge of blood sugar, that rapid surge of insulin, our bodies start to go on over-drive and then we're going to have that crash," Kimball said.
When asked if sugar was a "drag" on one's mood, Kimball said, "Sugar is. If there is one thing that I would say, what do we all need to clear out as much as possible is added sugar. Not the natural fruit sugar you're getting in the berries and stuff like that, but added sugar, sugar-sweetened drinks."
And on the flip side, feeling down or stressed before a eating can rev up an appetite for bad choices.
"We reach for certain foods that are kind of our stress foods, and they actually help to fuel that stress. They lower that threshold and they make it harder for us to deal with stressful situations, and that's often going to be those sugary, processed foods," Kimball said.
She recommends protein at the start of the day.
"Every time we eat we like to include that source of protein because it's going to help to enhance that alertness, that focus, and again just keep us feeling more solid," Kimball said.
The National Institutes of Health lists among good sources of protein: lean meats, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds and seafood.
Kimball loves salmon being a part of the diet.
"Fish and those fish oils, it's those types of omega-3s that help to improve our mood, lower the incidence of depression," she said.
Iron deficiency has also been linked to increased risk of mood disorders, according to the NIH.
"Eating things that keep us steady and level, instead of this roller-coaster of highs and lows," she said. "So I think when we're experiencing that low that we think we need these other things either for that lift, or that serotonin boost."
But it could be deeper than that. Research released in 2013 by Connecticut College found that Oreos can be just as addictive as cocaine, at least in lab rats. The researchers concluded that the findings support the theory that high fat/high sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way drugs do.
"When we're combining that carb with fat and salt, those foods actually light up certain receptors in our brain similar to addictive drugs like cocaine, so people, when we eat those foods, we actually experience a sense of euphoria, and some people who are very sensitive to it, it can almost be a high," said Kimball.
And the NIH said in some drug abusers, cocaine cues activated pathways similar to those activated by food cues.
"And we can keep beating ourselves up, and think it's us, you know, we're weak and we don't have enough willpower. But when we look at the strong impact that this has on our mood and actually on how we're feeling, right away we realize there's a significant draw to that," Kimball said.
Of course, excess booze can also affect one's mood.
"It actually significantly lowers our threshold to deal with anxiety," said Kimball.
And it's not just food and booze that can affect your mood. Plain old water - or the lack of it - can impact how you feel.
"It can be interpreted as hunger, as depression, we start to get irritable," Kimball said.
"If you're dehydrated it can have a big effect on how you feel and it can linger," Dr. Byerley added.
Revelations about food and mood that have some willing to put more thought into what they consume.
"To tell you the truth, you think about the kind of gas you put in your car, you know we actually take better care of our vehicles than we do of our bodies," said King.
Kimball said exercise can also boost your mood.
Byerley stressed that it is important to look at your overall lifestyle when assessing your mood.