Coffee, food, and mood“Although most of us think of food as fuel to help maintain our health and help us perform the activities we need or want to accomplish, food can have an enormous impact on how well we think and what kind of mood we’re in,” explains Martha McKittrick, an avid cyclist, certified diabetes educator, and registered dietitian with New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Here’s some handy advice for making food and beverage choices that may increase your alertness, memory and learning skills, while brightening your outlook on things. On the other hand, there are also foods and beverages that may have a deleterious impact on your reasoning abilities and mood. Here’s the lowdown from Martha…

Coffee – “A number of important studies have shown that coffee (not decaffeinated) may make you more alert and even boost your learning abilities and powers of reasoning,” Martha explains.This is good news for people who might be taking a crucial exam or preparing for an important interview. In addition, research shows that caffeine may fight depression and even improve physical performance in athletes, specifically those tackling endurance sports such as long-distance cycling or running.

“But here’s a word to the wise: The tolerance to coffee or its optimal use may depend on the individual,” Martha points out. “Two cups of coffee may be what it takes to help one individual better concentrate on new information and remember facts more easily. But for a person who is not used to it, an abrupt intake of the same amount of coffee may make you edgy.

Carbohydrates – “Despite the popularity of low-carb diets, it’s a fact that the body needs carbohydrates for energy. However,” Martha goes on, “some carbs will cause a rapid rise in blood sugar whereas with other carbs the rise will be slower. This is important because the more rapid the rise, the quicker the blood sugar will drop. There are many factors affecting how rapidly your body breaks down carb-rich foods. In general, sugary foods such as a candy bar or sugar-coated cereal can cause a blood sugar ‘high’ followed by a ‘low’ in many people. This yo-yo effect can leave you feeling more drained than before you ate anything! Higher fiber carbs, such as whole grain breads and cereals, vegetables and fruit will cause a slower rise of blood sugar, so these foods are preferred over the more sugary types of foods.

One more thought about carbs from Martha, “Some experts now propose that when carbs are eaten alone at meal (ie. a bowl of pasta or jumbo bagel), they will lead to an increased production of serotonin, a chemical produced in the brain that can induce feelings of calm or relaxation. This can be a good thing at bedtime, but not the best idea for the middle of the day. Moderation is the key.”

Big meals versus small meals – “Eating too much at one sitting can cause fatigue. Behavioral researchers report that scores on mental acuity tests were lower in those subjects fed large lunches (1000+ calories). The best way to eat for sustained energy is multiple, moderate-sized feedings during the day.”

Protein – “During digestion, proteins are broken down into individual amino acid building blocks that we need to perform all bodily functions. Protein eaten at meals has several benefits. It can help you to feel full, sustain energy levels for a longer period of time and can help to ward off sugar cravings a few hours later. Some experts also assert that protein-rich meals improve mental alertness through another mechanism as well. Protein contains an amino acid, tyrosine, that causes an increase in the production of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine, which actually can increase mental alertness and energy. Examples of foods rich in these proteins include meat, fish, chicken, eggs and cheese. These are dietary essentials, but not to the exclusion of carbs and fats. Man or woman does not thrive by protein alone!”

Mid-afternoon pick-me-ups – “Many of us feel a mid-afternoon slump. These are caused by:

  1. Skipping lunch, maybe breakfast too – but lunch is even more important;
  2. Not eating an appropriate lunch – that is, one that contains protein, fat and carbs;
  3. Overeating at lunch – even if it’s the right combination of foods;
  4. Eating too many sweets – be especially careful with fat free or low fat treats. These foods tend to be higher in sugar, as manufacturers often substitute sugar for the fat

Martha suggests five options to help you keep your energy levels up throughout the day:

  1. Don’t skip breakfast. If the last time your body had fuel was at 7:30 pm last evening, and you decide to skip breakfast… you’re asking your body to go 15 or more hours without nourishment. That can make you feel weak physically and not as sharp mentally. A good breakfast might be an egg and whole wheat toast, or a bowl of whole grain cereal and nonfat milk.
  2. Avoid overeating at lunchtime. Eating large meals leads to sleepiness. Again, it doesn’t matter whether the meal was carbs or protein.
  3. Go for a walk or have a cup of coffee. A recent study shows that drinking small amounts of coffee frequently throughout the day works more effectively to keep you awake and alert than consuming a large quantity of coffee at the start of the day. In addition, taking a break and walking just 10 minutes can improve blood flow and boost energy.
  4. Get enough sleep. Most of us need about 7-8 hours of sleep at night. Too little sleep or interrupted sleep puts a strain on physical and mental performance.
  5. Limit alcohol intake. Alcohol is a depressant that slows brain activity. While one drink may make most people feel relaxed, more alcohol may cause feelings of anxiety, depression and, often, aggression. It can disrupt normal sleep patterns and limit your physical and mental abilities the next day. Prolonged over-consumption of alcohol is associated with increased risk of heart disease and even cancer.

“Remember your choice of foods and the combinations and times that you consume them can help you perform at the top of your game – physically and mentally. To determine what works best for you, you might want to keep a food diary to help you track your eating and drinking patterns and their effects on your activity level, alertness, sleepiness and energy,” adds Martha.

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