Ahh the power of food…
…it can be used to strengthen or weaken us; make us cry tears of joy or of despair; it can be used as basic fuel for survival or inspire the most impassioned prose; it can be used to pamper, reward, seduce, or punish us, and so much more.
Whichever effect food has on our mood and our feelings, part of it is chemistry but a much bigger part is our emotional associations with it!
Throughout human history, lavish feasts were used as reward for our victories, to celebrate our special occasions, to welcome guests, and to treat ourselves whenever we feel like it.
No wonder is it then that the most elaborate and heavy foods have become so closely connected with joy in our minds!
We are programmed from the cradle that our feel-good foods are rich and rare, and that we can look forward to those occasions when our dreamy special foods are served. The mere thought of enjoying them makes our mouth water and lifts our mood.
On the other hand, simple, nourishing foods are often associated with plain, everyday basic fare, nothing-to-rave-about meals that have only one purpose: to nourish our physical self. They can even be considered a sacrifice or trade-off if we haven’t trained our taste buds and our brain to connect healthy foods with the joy of eating or the feeling of a worthwhile indulgence.
So what if we could turn simple, healthy foods that do so well for our body into drool-worthy associations in our mind that stimulate the same enthusiastic response that formerly only rich special occasion foods could?
What if we could enhance our mood and lift our spirit with humble plant foods that have the power to transform our wellbeing by triggering all the right feelings that make us happy and comfortable?
The answer is WE CAN!
Nature has a plethora of mood-enhancing healthy foods and the trick for turning these into our favorite go-to foods comes in two strikes:
1. We need to pick foods with compounds that trigger our brain into releasing endorphins like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, the “feel good” neurotransmitters.
2. We have to create positive emotional associations with these new feel-good foods that can help us overwrite our long-standing programming of choosing unhealthier foods for comfort and joy.
If you are curious to find out more, keep on reading below.
Why are endorphins our brain’s “feel good” agents?
Endorphins are chemical neurotransmitters produced by the brain to relieve stress and pain. They work similarly to a class of drugs called opioids.
In the 1980s, scientists were studying how and why opioids worked and they found that the body has special receptors that bind to opioids to block pain signals. The scientists then realized that some chemicals in the body acted similarly to natural opioid medications, binding to these same receptors. These chemicals were endorphins.
The name endorphin comes from the words “endogenous,” which means “from the body,” and “morphine,” which is an opioid pain reliever.
Endorphins consist of a large group of peptides, which are produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland. Since endorphins act on the opiate receptors in our brains, they reduce pain and boost pleasure, resulting in a feeling of well-being. Endorphins are released in response to pain or stress, but they’re also released during other activities, like eating, exercise, or sex.
Although no food products contain whole endorphins for easy consumption, several endorphin-stimulating foods boast high levels of the vitamins and minerals that play a large part in boosting your brain's production, like vitamin B12, B6, vitamin C, zinc and potassium.
These are the major plant foods that stimulate endorphin production:
1. Vitamin C rich foods
Fruits with the highest sources of vitamin C include: cantaloupe melon, citrus fruits, kiwi fruit, mango, papaya, pineapple, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, watermelon
Vegetables with the highest sources of vitamin C include: broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, green and red peppers, spinach, cabbage, turnip greens, dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, winter squash
2. Spicy foods
People who enjoy spicy foods may find that they can get an additional boost from their favorite dishes. Research suggests that the spicy components in hot peppers, capsaicin, is effective in boosting endorphins.
When the hotness of a hot pepper hits your tongue, there is a pain response and the brain releases endorphins and dopamine. Combined, these chemicals create euphoria similar to "runner's high".
3. Dark chocolate
In 2017 it was found that eating dark chocolate may help boost endorphins. For a real mood-improving healthy kind of chocolate, look for non-milk products that contain at least 70 percent cocoa and eat chocolate in moderation due to its high calorie and fat content.
Thanks to its high content of polyphenols and other antioxidants, dark chocolate reduces inflammation, lowers blood pressure, reduces 'bad' LDL cholesterol, boosts 'good' HDL cholesterol and protects the health of your arteries. It also contains chemicals that prompt the release of endorphins.
4. Nuts, seeds and avocados
The healthy fats found in nuts, seeds and avocados help to produce hormones, which in turn support the production of all the more popular neurotransmitters, including endorphins, serotonin and dopamine.
We also know that people with a high intake of healthy fats experience lower levels of depression, stress and anxiety, so eating foods such as nuts, seeds, hummus and avocado will help to brighten your mind with positive thoughts!
Brazil nuts are high in selenium and include the amino acid tyrosine, which both help to boost dopamine and serotonin levels. Just 1-2 brazil nuts per day will give you the average recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of selenium.
Sources: walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, pine nuts, brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, sesame seeds, avocado.
5. B Vitamin Boosters
Vitamin B6 or pyridoxine
is an essential nutrient for the central nervous system and is needed for the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine.High levels of the stress hormone cortisol reduces levels of serotonin, which can be stimulated by vitamin B6.
Vitamin B6 is naturally found in dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, collards, chards, mustard greens and also in brown rice, legumes, and wholegrains .
Vitamin B12 or cyanocobalamin is another brain-boosting nutrient.
Bananas already contain B vitamins and vitamin C, helping to boost the release of endorphins from the central nervous system, but they also contain tryptophan, the amino acid that helps serotonin production.
On top of this, the B6 found in bananas can help to stabilize blood sugar levels, which in turn regulates your mood.
Ginseng can benefit people who are feeling fatigued and over-stressed and those recovering from a long illness. This well-known medicinal herb can balance the release of stress hormones in the body and support the organs that produce these hormones. It may also enhance the production of endorphins.
Many long-distance runners and body builders take ginseng to heighten physical endurance.
How can you create emotional feel-good connections with healthy foods?
When we try to change anything in our life that has become a long-standing habit or behavior, we must first understand what triggers these behaviors or “programs”, in order to determine the right method we need to change them.
Our relationship with food is dependent on the feelings we associate with eating it.
But is this feeling coming from the special flavor or texture or color of the food? Likely not. The feel-good factor is usually triggered from the environment we find ourselves in when eating it.
Take a holiday feast for example, for many of us the ultimate feel-good food experience:
If we could switch off our memories and solely judge the taste of a slice of stuffed turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy, is that flavor really so special? Or is it so special because we associate these flavors with the linked memories of being with family, spending time together, feeling loved, sharing laughs and stories? You can bet, it’s the latter!
Our food habits are created by our emotional connections to the situation around us while we are eating, and the meaning we give to it!
If your loving mom was feeding you chicken wings as a young child and you felt good about that at the time, you may have developed a programmed appetite for chicken wings, as that’s the food you associate with your caring mother and the feel-good endorphins that this situation has created for you. Subconsciously, you are now still making this connection when you pick-up chicken wings, and it feels good.
On the other hand, if your loving mom fed you broccoli as a child and it was a positive experience for you, broccoli may have become a food you still like as adult, because it triggers the same neural associations that it did way back then.
That is why we get dreamy-eyed when thinking of grandma’s famous chocolate cookies or her chili. It’s not about the cookies or the chili – it’s about how grandma made us feel, how special this was for us, and how much we love her and miss her.
By eating these foods, we can trigger the same feelings again, because our brain does not know the difference between fact and vivid imagination!
So if the above is true, how do we go about changing our food associations where we don’t have a positive connection or even a negative one? How can we make ourselves like and enjoy foods that are good for us but don’t rock our boat?
We can do that by intentionally creating positive associations with the foods that are good for us, and here are three ways to do this:
1. Start by adding healthy superfoods to meals that you usually have at moments of joy, like holiday family meals, celebration meals or romantic date nights. You can add them as side dish or sprinkle them into your dishes, so your brain starts linking these healthier foods to your feel-good moments and starts creating a positive association with them for the future.
2. Make your favorite feel-good dishes with parts of healthy superfoods. If you already have a favorite recipe that lifts your mood, add a topping or a side of a healthy food when you prepare it! How about mac & cheese with a base from cashew nuts and avocado, topped with crushed peppers and pumpkin seeds and a side salad of spinach and tomato? That’s a great way to start connecting more good-for-you foods with those foods you already love.
3. For those healthy foods that you can’t stand right now, trick yourself into “opening the door” for them: Let’s use kale for example, an acquired taste for many but one of the superfood powerhouses not to be missed. You can make a juice, smoothie or blended soup by adding kale along with other ingredients that you already like.
Start with a little bit of kale and then up the ante. Your taste buds won’t be offended and your cells get introduced to kale and will start loving it! Since your body always wants to put you into a state of perfect health, your cravings will slowly start changing – to the point where you will find yourself having a craving for kale! I kid you not, it happened to me with broccoli, which is now one of my favorite foods!
I hope the above insight and tips can help you to create a positive association with healthier feel-good foods that allow you to overwrite your unwanted habits of choosing unhealthier foods for comfort and joy!
Here is to your great health & many joyful moments!
Founder & President
Health, Healing & Happiness LLC