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January 28, 2022

I’ve been thinking lately about food and mood.

I’ve often been a mood eater. It’s not unheard of for me to hit the grocery store, come home with all sorts of meal options, and then immediately go out for Thai, or Mexican, or gnocchi at the nearby Italian restaurant– all because of my mood. A fridge full of great food? That won’t stop me from Door Dashing sushi if I’m in the mood for sushi.

Lately, my craving has been for pancakes. My favorite is homemade, from scratch: fluffy on the inside, a little bit of crunch on the outside, with lots of butter and decent dose of syrup. It’s classic comfort food.

So, you can imagine my dismay when I learned that “comfort food” isn’t really comforting, at least according to research recently reported by the New York Times. Apparently, the good feeling you get when eating comfort food is a feeling you’d get anyway, over the passage of time. In other words, it’s not the food that makes you feel better. It’s temporal distance from whatever made you feel bad.

The research also found that the Mediterranean diet is the most mood-enhancing of all types of diets. It turns out that eating a lot of fruits and vegetables – and not pancakes – is most likely to make you truly feel better.

Some of us make meal choices that we think will make us feel good. Others choose our diets because they will help us lose weight. Many of us eat what we do out of routine or convenience.

But what if we designed our diets to improve our decision-making?

Research suggests a relationship between diet and decision-making that makes this seem like a decent idea. For example, a recent study out of the University of Lübeck in Germany tested the impact of nutrition on decisions regarding how to handle unfair or unjust social situations.

Here’s what the scientists did. After breakfast but before lunch, they asked their research subjects to describe, in detail, all the food they ate so far that day. Then, they put each subject through a scenario where they were made an unfair offer. Specifically, the researchers held 10 euros that they said they were willing to share, but then only offered the subjects 2 euros. A 50/50 split would have been fair and offering more than 5 euros would have been generous. But offering only 2? Not cool.

The researchers then noted how each research participant responded to the unfair offer. Was there a correlation between what each participant ate that morning and how they reacted? Yes. In fact, people who ate high-carb meals were more likely than those who ate high-protein meals to reject the unfair offer. Rather than politely accept the 2 euros, as most of the high-protein eaters did, the high-carb eaters were much more likely to send a signal by saying “No thanks” and walking away with nothing. It's worth noting that not all high-carb eaters rejected the offer, but they were much more likely than high-protein eaters to do so.

Seems like those pancakes I’ve been eating could have done a number on my decision-making. Looks like I should stick to omelets (don’t be impressed; they come out perfectly in my Brava).

Eating for better decision-making may not be a bad idea, and I’m not the first to think of this. This blog suggests a diet that enhances mental energy and self-control, to facilitate better decision-making. This one offers tips on how to reduce stress so that your decisions can be better. This great article discusses how hunger can lead to riskier decision-making. Even Reader’s Digest has covered the topic of what to eat before making an important decision.

It’s important to make the right decisions regarding what to eat. The right foods can enhance your mood and keep you healthy. But it’s also important to choose foods that lead to good decision-making. What you eat has implications beyond just your body. It can impact choices regarding your families, your work, and your finances.

I will still crave pancakes from time to time, not to mention mac-and-cheese or pizza, because my brain tells me that these foods make me feel better (even though science says they don’t). Besides… yum! I mean… I’m human.

But if I’m facing a stressful or important decision…. I’ll make myself a green smoothie first and then dive in.

That is all.

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