How food impacts our happiness

Our relationship with food is fickle. We overeat, we undereat. Some of us obsess about healthy eating, and some indulge in bad foods (actually, a lot of us if statistics on obesity are any indication**). Eating can create different feelings: instant gratification, or even guilt, for example, but could it create long-lasting happiness? The short answer is yes if we use it correctly.

Since we’re exploring food to attain happiness, it might be helpful to define what happiness is. For this article, we’ll use a simplified definition of happiness and leave its philosophical aspects for another day. As per Merriam-Webster: happiness is a state of well-being and contentment. Can we achieve that state through food? We could argue that eating ice cream, for example, gives us contentment, even joy… but does it create well-being? The short-term gratification is there, but how do we feel later? If we consider health repercussions alone, we know that too much of that indulgence will eventually have a heavy price tag… (pun intended). 

If indulging in our favourite foods usually results in feeling sluggish and may even be a path to obesity, how do we use food to achieve state of happiness?

We live in a world where we are bombarded with millions of diets fighting for our attention and, in most cases, our wallets. There is always some new discovery in nutrition that makes us want to jump on yet another diet train… usually leading to nowhere… So why did we lose our natural connection to food, and when did that happen? When did our relationship with food become so complicated? The problem starts with the food industry being a huge business. Let’s look at a story of fat and sugar, for example. We can see how turning food into a colossal business is not working well for us. In the 1950s, cardiovascular health studies indicated sugar as a significant risk factor. So the sugar industry started to sponsor studies that blamed fat*** for protecting its market share. We now know that sugar is also one of the major culprits behind our obesity issue. But with big money behind it, the sugar industry was able to protect its market share and shift blame somewhere else, at the expense of our health…

At this time, a trendy keto diet is based on vilifying carbs (but lovingly approving healthy fats). The issue with keto is that our bodies need carbs for proper brain function and to feel good, among other things. So we’re again facing a very biased approach to food.

In all the chaos and misinformation surrounding diets, most of us simply forgot the basics of how to eat. As a result, we rely on band-aid solutions for quick fixes while feeling out of whack most of the time…

This simple guide aims to get us back on track. It will cover three essential aspects of eating: when, how much, and what to eat. It will help you feel good, stay content and balance your mood. In other words: It will make you Happy!

1. WHEN TO EAT

Multiple studies show that our sugar balance is the key to stable energy levels. Steady energy leads to a good mood and overall well-being. One of the strategies to help balance sugar levels is having regular time intervals between eating. For example, having meals every 3-4 hrs from the moment we wake up until about 3-4 hrs before going to bed will start the process. 

Your first meal should be consumed within an hour of waking up or after your morning workout. For example:

if you get up at 7 am, your breakfast should be at 8 am, at the latest,

then your brunch/lunch between 11 am-12 pm,

your late lunch/early dinner between 3-4 pm,

your supper around 7-8 pm,

and then bedtime between 10pm and midnight.

This well-balanced eating schedule will help keep your sugar levels steady. This will also help to balance your mood, and you can be all smiles and full of energy all day long. It will also help you with your resolve when it comes to avoiding harmful foods. I know from experience that every time I go longer than 4 hours without food, I have zero self-control. Especially at 5 hrs mark and beyond. I will end up eating anything in sight. Not to mention that I will also get the wrong ideas. Like creative ways to sugar overload or some crazy processed fat options … Sugar levels also depend on how much you consume and the type of foods you eat.

2. HOW MUCH TO EAT

In Japan, there is a habit of eating at 80%, meaning the Japanese eat until they feel 80% full, keeping themselves from overeating. How do you know you’re at 80%? It’s when you no longer feel hungry and start eating for the pure pleasure of food tasting. You can have a few bites in that state and then put your utensils down. Overeating is actually an incredibly easy thing to do. Our brain signals that we are full about 20 minutes after consuming food gets consumed. So when we feel stressed, we use that 20 minutes to fill up on extra food that we don’t need… For those of us who don’t have the Japanese discipline, the first few days of adjusting may be a bit harder. But eating every 3-4 hrs will help tremendously to keep ourselves at that 80% fullness.

Mindful eating is also a very beneficial technique. Focusing on your food and even contemplating all the benefits particular food item has on your body is a great way to control overeating.

You can also focus on portions or calories. On average, we need between 1400-1700 calories for adult females and between 2000-3000 for males (it varies for age and activity level). With 4 meals per day, we should aim for about 350-425 calories per meal for ladies and between 500-750 for gents. If you decide not to go for calories when deciding on how much to eat, good rule of thumb would be to use small plate as your meal size. For ladies, a bit more sparingly filled; for gents, filled fully.

Eating proper amounts of food helps to make you feel good. We all know that terrible feeling when we overeat and how sluggish we feel after. Everything becomes such a chore… It’s very tough to feel happy at that point. Especially if you have a day filled with activities and all you can think about is taking a nap…

3. WHAT TO EAT

What exactly should we eat for optimal happiness?

The quality of our food is paramount to our well-being and also to how happy or unhappy we feel. A study by Penn State psychologist Dr. Helen Handy, cited in The Atlantic, looked at how food and mood played out across several days. How we feel on day three correlates to what we ate on day one. Her findings showed increased consumption of calories, sodium, and saturated fat resulted in negative moods two days later. This similar study pointed out that men and women who ate vegetables one day felt better the day after. As we can see, our bodies really want to work with us; they delay the consequences of our bad eating but reward us almost instantly when we do a good job… If you find yourself in a bad mood and can’t quite figure out why to try to remember what you ate three days ago… and maybe that will motivate you not to eat the not so good for you foods.

The best approach as to what to eat should be kept simple. Eat real foodmake your own food, and eat as colourful as possible. Add veggies in all sorts of colours; green should be predominant. However, red, orange, yellow, white, purple, and beige should all be included. Keep your veggies raw and steamed in your diet; the easiest way to consume them. If raw, add some olive oil to ease digestion and absorption of nutrients. For snacking best option are seeds. They are nutritional powerhouses, and they give you tons of energy. If you are a meat eater, all meats are fine as long as they are of good quality. Raised without antibiotics and hormones, and as long as they are consumed sparingly. Good quality fish, preferably wild-caught, is a great meal. You should aim for once a week. Adding plant-based protein is also great; tofu and beans are fantastic options. And please don’t be afraid of fats! You need them! Your skin needs them, and your organs needs them! But of course, only healthy options, like avocados, olives, olive oil, grass-fed animal butter, nut butter, and coconut oil, are all amazing for your health and taste buds and will make you happy!

The ratio on your plate should look more or less like this: half of your plate filled with veggies, and the rest is divided between healthy fats and healthy protein. This is just a rough guideline. You may adjust the ratios to suit your energy levels best, but always ensure your veggies are at least half of your meal.

What about fruit? Some believe that fruit is not that great for us, but many studies have also been done on benefits of fruit on our health, and they make wonderful desserts! Finishing off your meal with fruit salad is a great way to eliminate the bad habit of having unhealthy sweets after your meal…

Also, grab a banana if you’re having a particularly gloomy day! It will make your day better! Bananas contain tryptophan and vitamin B6, which help our brain produce serotonin, which plays a role in feelings of well-being and happiness. Banana also has a high amount of magnesium, a well-known mineral for mood improvement. They are also fantastic for digestion. So if you feel your happiness level needs some boost, grab a banana; it’s good for you!