Is food linked to mood? Emotional eating isn’t a failure, it’s a part of our humanity

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“Food is a tool in our mental health toolbox and right now we need all the tools we can get,” says Washington Post writer Mary Beth Albright, who examines the psychology between food and mood. Photo by Cassidy DuHon.

In Mary Beth Albright’s book “Eat & Flourish,” she explores how food is linked to mood and well-being. Go on any social media platform and you’ll see countless stories of people who are struggling with mental health. The response by the medical field for decades has been, take a pill. But there's a new field of nutritional psychology that proposes that food might be a way forward.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: You're a writer, editor and executive producer at the Washington Post. What was the turning point for you to do this super deep dive research in this area of nutritional psychology.

Mary Beth Albright: About 15 years ago, I was working at the United States Surgeon General's office and I had a report pass my desk that showed that omega three fatty acids would decrease the incidence of aggression in men. That was the first time that I had ever seen any sort of peer reviewed, controlled study that showed that food and mood were related. Over the next 15 years, everything just blossomed this field of nutritional psychiatry. There's so much research being put out in the past 15 years about how food and mood are entwined.

I found it fascinating how you talk about how emotional eating isn't a personal failure, it's just a part of our humanity.

Very much so. Biology shows that when we eat anything, our bodies produce dopamine, and that can be a carrot stick, that can be a piece of cake, that can be a tuna steak, anything. That dopamine is an opportunity for us to associate certain foods with good pleasure. The most exciting thing to me as someone who grew up in diet culture, was that all of these effects happen independent of weight – it's not the kind of thing that you say, “Okay, eat healthy, and then you'll lose weight. You'll feel better about yourself,” that kind of thing. It's a completely biological phenomenon.

Just to give us some examples, could you share with us some of the peer-reviewed measurable results that you've seen about the food emotional well-being connection?

One of the most interesting [studies] is about the gut microbiome. The gut microbiome is the collection of trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in our digestive tract that goes from the mouth all the way to the other end. That gut microbiome and the individual collection of bacteria that we have in our own bodies, influences a lot of our social and emotional well-being – how well we sleep, social anxiety, how we metabolize medications, neuroplasticity, all of these things are influenced by this gut microbiome. And everyone's gut is different. It's like a fingerprint that we all have different ones. 

There's some research going on globally, about how early-life trauma and stress can affect animal’s gut microbiomes. They find that mice who are raised with that kind of early life trauma – they're put in a maze that has no end or they get removed from their mothers – those mice actually have a different gut microbiome composition than the mouse next to them who didn't have that early-life trauma. 

We also see that certain bacteria when animals are given stress stress tests have the same level of decreasing anxiety as the antidepressant Lexapro. Now, this is not to say throw away your Lexapro and don't talk to therapists anymore. I mean, I benefit from medication and talk therapy every single day. But it's to say that food is a tool in our mental health toolbox. Right now, we need all the tools we can get. It is complementary to the many other things that you can do for your mental health. We really need to get to know this connection, because right now we are in a mental health crisis globally. The current Surgeon General has shown that we are in a loneliness epidemic and loneliness can have the same reduction in lifespan as 10 cigarettes a day.

About that loneliness factor – one of your key suggestions to eating for a better mood is to eat with another person once a day. I really thought about how for many of us, that would actually be the hardest suggestion to pull off.

Absolutely, and I live alone part of the time. It is work eating with other people. Once I wrote an article about the importance of eating with other people and the replies I got from a lot of readers were, “I have no one to eat with.” But there is a lot of evidence that people who eat with other people enjoy better health outcomes, regardless of what they're eating at the time. When you eat with other people, you tend to eat more food, but your health outcomes are better. And in America, we often associate eating more food is bad for your health. So it's this kind of compelling thing that we need to pay attention to.

For me, I enjoy being alone, I enjoy my own company. But I have as part of my own work gone out and try to have at least one extra meal with other people per week, sometimes more. It can be as easy as not eating at your desk at work, or sitting down at a communal table at a restaurant. A lot of restaurants and fast casual places now have communal tables, and there's a lot of benefits to that.

What is the link between our immune system, inflammatory foods, and depression? How can eating and cooking calm the nervous system instead of ratcheting it up and causing inflammation?

One thing that's important to remember is that flavor is created in the brain – that we often think of flavor as something that happens on our tongue. And if you know a little bit more about food, you think of it as something that happens in your nose. That flavor is created by scent. But really, we see that flavor is informed by everything around us. People who drink a glass of whiskey, if they drink that glass of whiskey with birds chirping in the background, they will report that it tastes grassier. If they drink that whiskey with the sound of a crackling fire in the background, they were reported as tasting, smokier – the same exact meal. If you eat it with disposable cutlery, plastic, flimsy cutlery, you're going to rate that meal as less delicious, as if you eat it with really heavy cutlery. 

These are, these are tricks and tricks, the things that happen in the brain that chefs have used for a long time.The music matters, what you're holding in your hand matters as you eat. And so when you cook, that increases your food pleasure, but it also can be meditative. And I don't want to be the person who says, “Oh, cooking is always so relaxing.” Sometimes it's not. And I get it, especially when you need to put dinner on the table for hungry people who you're responsible for feeding for whatever reason. But it can also be a meditative act, I get into a little bit about bread rotation, which is the meditative act of making bread. And if you're not a person who has ever made bread in your life there, there are ways to do it. That it's not a lot of needing but it's it's it's a it's a relaxing sort of thing. And then you put the bread in the oven and you have the smell of the bread, which of course increases all of your food, pleasure, that anticipation and makes your house smell good. We always hear about people cooking something when they're trying to sell their house, when they have an open house. Why don't we use those tricks and those tools on ourselves to increase our own emotional well-being? 

The inflammation question is a really important one. Inflammation is our body's immune system at work. You cut your finger and it gets swollen and it gets warm and it gets a little bit red. That's your immune system at work – that's inflammation. What we're learning now is that ultra-processed foods are seen in our body as a threat, and by that I mean the kinds of culprits you're thinking of like chips and industrially-processed breads with industrial oils and that kind of thing. When we eat ultra-processed foods, with those ingredients that our bodies don't recognize, it makes our bodies become inflamed. This is different from food allergies,because food allergies cause inflammation, too, that is human-specific, that is person-specific. But ultra-processed foods seem to affect everybody in this way, causing inflammation. 

When you have inflammation in your body, it releases inflammatory compounds into your bloodstream. That happens anywhere in your body, whether it's food related or not, those inflammatory compounds can make their way into your brain. We used to think that the brain was completely protected by something called the blood brain barrier, that it was impenetrable, that nothing that was circulating in the blood could get through to the brain and hurt it. Now we know and this is just in the past few decades, that that barrier is actually a whole bunch of tightly, tightly connected cells. So it's not impenetrable. It's semi permeable, and the little tiny inflammatory compounds in your blood can make their way to your brain and wreak havoc with your emotional well-being. And that can happen by having an ultra-high processed food diet. Even just staying away from that ultra-processed food, even removing a little bit of it from your life will have an effect on your emotional well-being because you won't have as many of those inflammatory compounds in your bloodstream.

As a society, we tend to want the easy fix. How do we keep this new knowledge from leading to another way to self blame? “Just eat better, and you'll feel better.” Now we're even more responsible for our own depression?

That was my biggest concern with writing the book was to make sure that at no point, did anyone ever say, “Well, you're depressed, you just need to eat better, and you'll get better.” This is a tool in our mental health toolbox. I know personally, from personal experience, that when you're having a depressive episode, it's hard to get out of bed, let alone eat a certain way, or like make yourself a salad. That's why there's so much in here about just increasing food pleasure, that if you're just at a point where you're like, I can eat one thing, how do I increase the pleasure of doing that? There are tips in the book for that. 

We are a society that wants a quick fix. I'll be honest with you, if I could eat an entire cake tonight and then take a pill and make it be like it never happened, that's the ideal situation. There's nothing happening like that. And every researcher I spoke with says there’s nothing in any of our lifetimes, including my son's lifetime, that will help with emotional well-being the way that food does. There's no pill. There is no substitute to eating a diverse plant-based diet. 

There's a lot of research about the Mediterranean diet, the Okinawan diet, the Norwegian diet – whole grains, leafy greens like wombs, fatty fish, and importantly, eating together. It's not just about what you eat, it's about how you eat. I can tell you how many interviews I've done and people said, “Okay, what are your top five foods to eat for better mental health?” I don't answer the question because it's about a dietary pattern. It’s not a quick fix. It's a lifelong commitment. It doesn't mean you never eat sugar. Again, it doesn't mean you're going to feel this way in five days. It is an evidence- based way of having long term emotional well-being work into what you eat and what you eat, work into your long term emotional well being.

Nutritional psychology is the focus of “Eat & Flourish: How Food Supports Emotional Well-Being.” Photo courtesy of Countryman Press.