Is there a link between food and feelings?

Kate Bristow expands on food and feelings: what food improves mood and knowing the difference between emotional eating and real hunger.

Happiness is something that we are all looking for. Generally, things like exercise, meditation and therapy are top of the list of recommendations. But did you know that the food you eat can play a role in your feelings?

There have been studies done on food and mental well-being and certain foods can be linked to increased serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical, also known as the happy hormone, which plays a big role in regulating your mood. Serotonin levels which are low can cause low mood.

Which foods lift mood and how to manage in diabetes

  1. Dark chocolate – There are components in dark chocolate which have been shown to produce serotonin and have anti-depressant properties. Dark chocolate isn’t a complete no in diabetes; in moderation it can be used to take away that craving for something sweet, and now to bring on a better mood.
  2. Bananas – Although not recommended in large quantities in diabetes, bananas contain vitamin B6 and the body needs vitamin B6 to create serotonin.
  3. Coconut – More research is needed here, but animal studies have found that coconut milk can possibly reduce anxiety.
  4. Coffee – Research shows that coffee consumption has been significantly associated with a decreased risk of depression, including the decaffeinated version.
  5. Avocado – This fruit is packed with good stuff, including choline which the body uses to regulate the nervous system and mood. Studies have shown decreased anxiety in women when they eat avocados. Avos are also rich in vitamin B which is good to decrease stress levels.
  6. Berries – Higher fruit and vegetable intake has been linked to better mental health. Berries are rich in antioxidants, which may reduce symptoms of depression.
  7. Foods which are fermented – Sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha and yoghurt help with a healthy gut and may improve your mood. Up to 90% of serotonin is made in the gut, so eating these products will promote the production of serotonin.
  8. Mushrooms – These are packed with vitamin D which has been linked to antidepressant properties and mood enhancement. It’s also easily absorbed in this form by the body. For the best benefit, expose your mushrooms to the sun for a couple of hours before you cook them.

The good news is that the above, eaten in the right proportions are healthy choices and can be included as part of an eating plan in diabetes.

Emotional and comfort eating

We all have a relationship with food, just as we have a relationship with family and friends. And without even thinking about it, you could be an emotional or mindless eater. Add diabetes into the mix with a whole lot of strangers, as in the healthcare team and your family and friends taking extra interest in what you are eating, and it can get complicated.

Food is not just fuel for the body; it can be soothing and nurturing as in a baby receiving breast milk to settle and sooth. It’s not surprising then that you reach for food to help you cope with feelings (stress, conflict, anxiety, relationship challenges), we all need comforting from time to time.

However, even though eating does make you feel better and help settle emotions of distress, it may be beneficial to recognise the cause of the emotion and manage this rather than dull everything with food.

Diabetes itself can be a cause of stress and depression. Having to pay close attention to what you eat and learning on the job can be tough and possibly a cause of emotional eating.

Express your emotions in a safe way

Here’s one example of a conversation with yourself, “I’m eating because I’m frustrated for not being as productive as I would have liked today.”

It’s important to recognise behaviours like this and figure out your triggers and ways to express your emotions in a safe way. For example:

  • Talk to a friend or family member
  • Allow yourself to show emotion e.g. cry
  • Journal
  • Exercise
  • Do something fun to distract yourself

What can you do differently next time?

Dr Jen Nash, a psychologist who is living with diabetes, says that food challenges are real. But she also says that food should be pleasurable and a diagnosis of diabetes shouldn’t mean the end of this. Hunger is only one of 30+ reasons why you eat.

She suggests setting goals which are achievable. Strive to do the right thing 90% of the time and don’t feel guilty when things don’t go according to plan. She suggests an Oh-well attitude and to use the experience as a learning tool – What can I do differently next time?

  • Try not to feel that you’re being watched by everyone and equip yourself to face the challenges that food may give you in the journey ahead.
  • Try practical ideas such as experimenting with new recipes but planning a weekly shopping list and menu is a good idea.
  • Phone a friend who is there to support you and that you can be accountable to. This isn’t stalking, but rather support for choices that you make. Keep in touch with family and friends and reach out if you’re struggling. You are not alone.
  • Look after your body – make healthy choices with regards to food, get enough sleep and exercise regularly.

Mindful eating and how it helps in your meal plan choices

As a person with diabetes, you’re required to pay attention to what you’re eating constantly. Feeling stressed or depressed can be a cause of emotional eating. If you find yourself eating as a form of comfort, substitute this behaviour with an alternative treat: have your nails done, go to a movie or visit a friend.

You should enjoy food but eating mindlessly for the sake of eating means that you’re not taking time out to really savour what you’re eating. Before reaching out for a tasty treat, ask yourself “Why am I eating, am I actually hungry?” This is a more mindful approach.

Mindful eating means that you use all your emotional and physical senses to enjoy the food you’re eating. It encourages better choices for food, which are satisfying and nourishing.

Mindless eating or distracted eating can be associated with anxiety and stress, overeating and the associated weight gain.

How unhealthy eating patterns cause mayhem

Unhealthy eating patterns have been known to lead to mood swings, fluctuations in blood glucose levels and nutritional imbalances. With this lack of stability, your mind and body doesn’t function well.

Examples include:

  • Skipping meals leads to low blood glucose levels which can leave you feeling weak and tired.
  • Cutting out food groups can lead to not getting all the essential nutrients in your diet, which can also lead to mood swings and decreased energy.
  • Too many refined carbohydrates can cause erratic blood glucose levels, low energy and irritability.

Health eating habits

Evidence suggests that a healthy eating plan is both physically and mentally protective. Some general guidelines include:

  • Eat at regular set intervals during the day.
  • Choose less refined sugars and eat more whole grains.
  • Make sure you have protein at every meal.
  • Keep a variety of food in your eating plan.
  • Try to reach and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Drink enough fluid, particularly water.
  • Exercise regularly.

Pause mindfully

Pause mindfully when you eat, intentionally create time between each bite.

P    Present – Stop multi-tasking when you eat, and just eat.

A   Awareness – Be aware of the feeling of hunger, how does it make you feel physically?

U   Understand – Your feelings and how they may influence the food choices you make.

S    Savour – Take a mindful bite – smell, taste, touch, listen.

E    Enjoy – How much are you enjoying this bite?

Mindful eating becomes a strategy to encourage meals with fewer distractions, as well as better eating habits. Taking the time to enjoy the flavour of your food, atmosphere and company has been shown to lead to better psychological well-being, increased pleasure when eating and satisfaction.

So, go out there and enjoy mindful meals with your loved ones and in doing so create better health for yourself and fewer emotional eating habits.

Physical hunger vs. emotional hunger


Stomach growling

Thinking/considering choices

Low energy levels

Hunger grows slowly

How much time since the last meal?

Is food satisfying?


What am I feeling? (anger, bored, stress)

How strong were the emotions?

When did you start feeling like this?

How did you hope food may help? (soothe or help you escape feelings)


Sister Kate Bristow is a qualified nursing sister and certified diabetes educator.


Kate Bristow is a qualified nursing sister and certified diabetes educator.

Header image by FreePik