Food for Mood—Does the Way We Feel Really Reflect the Way We Eat?
Open Journal of Depression
2014. Vol.3, No.1, 1-2
Published Online February 2014 in SciRes (
Food for Mood—Does the Way We Feel Really
Reflect the Way We Eat?
Ursula Werneke
Associate Professor in Psychiatry Umeå University and Consultant Psychiatrist
Sunderby Research Unit, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden
Received November 10th, 2013; revised December 25th, 2013; accepted January 5th, 2014
Copyright © 2014 Ursula We rneke. This is an open access article distributed under the Creativ e Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited. In accordance of the Creative Commons Attribution License all Copyrights ©
2014 are reserved fo r SCIRP and the owner of the intel lectual property Ursula Werneke. All Copyright © 2014
are guarded by law and by SCIRP as a guardian.
Trying to influence the way we feel through the way we eat
continues to enjoy immense popularity. Its intuitive appeal is
greatly amplified by modern electronic media. For instance,
keying “food for mood” recently into my search engine yielded
a staggering 153,000,000 hits on 4th June 2013. Within ten days,
this number had gone up by an impressive eight million to
161,000,000 hits. But what is the food-mood connection; does
the way we eat influence the way we feel or does the way we
feel impact on the way we eat or does it work both ways? And
how can we therapeutically capitalize on such a connection, ir-
respective of which way it may work?
Out of BalanceOut of Mind?
The concept “food for mood” originates from the idea that an
illness occurs when the body is out of balance. Thus, it seems
only natural that restoring the balance through eating well could
restore health. The idea is over 2000 years old. It has been part
of the different ancient medicine systems such as traditional
Chinese medicine and the Aryurveda, the traditional Indian me-
dical practice. For the Western world, Hippocrates developed
similar views (Hillier, 1991). But at the turn of the 19th century,
it became increasingly possible to pin down many illnesses to
specific causes. For the first time, it became possible to develop
effective and specific cures for many acute illnesses of the time,
such as the treatment of infections with antibiotics. This was
followed by the development of modern antidepressants and
antipsychotics. Undoubtedly, this led to great advances in the
treatment of mental disorders such as depression; most physi-
cians and patients alike would not want to do without. But it
also led to a tendency to see health problems just in biological-
medical terms and ignore social and environmental factors (Hil-
lier, 1991). And despite this medical view of mental ill health, it
has proven difficult to find specific biological causes and cures
for many mental heal th problems including depression.
For the sufferer of low mood, this increasingly uni-dimen-
sional approach may lead to a sense of loss of control. Some of
the control may be “clawed back” by modifying our lifestyle
including the way we eat. But there are also downsides to this
concept. Firstly, there may be a sense of guilt in those who
think that some poor life style choice has brought on a mental
health problem in the first place. Then, there is a risk that pa-
tients and physicians alike may drown in the sheer dearth of re-
commendations of how to live and eat well. More likely than
not, most physicians will neither have the time nor the expertise
to discuss life-style decisions in detail in busy out-patient clin-
ics. Finally, many people, particularly when depressed, may not
be able to process and appraise information given on diets and
lifesty le.
A Banana a Day…
The idea of tracing illness back to a lack of a specific food
component lies somewhat between the concept of illness as a
system out of balance and illness as a result of a single medical
cause. Indeed, for some health problems, when there is a clearly
identified deficiency, this model works very well. For instance,
we know that a lack of vitamin C lies behind scurvy. We also
know that lack of iodine may lead to an underactive thyroid
gland. But for other health problems it seems to work less well.
We know that depression is associated with a lack of seroto-
nin, yet eating foods containing high amounts of the precursor
L-tryptophan, such as bananas or turkey, do not cure depression
(Young, 2007). Chocolate, containing polyphenols that may act
on gamma-amino-butyric acid and adenosine, has been classi-
cally credited with mood-lifting properties. But clinical evi-
dence for individuals suffering from major depression remains
limited, even an increased sense of calmness and contentedness
has recently been demon strated for people without mental hea lth
problems (Pase et al., 2013). Also, chocolate products tend to
contain considerable amounts of sugar and fat. This is required
to make cocoa palatable, but adds more calories to our diet. So
what about oily omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish, foods
rich in vitamin D or folic aid? Again, the evidence remains li-
mited (Sanhueza et al., 2013), most likely because food-based
intervention trials are extremely difficult to conduct.
Supplements for Anyone?
Even trials using standardized supplements instead of non-
standardized foods often yield only preliminary or inconclusive
results. For instance, a recent meta-analysis concluded that the
treatment effect of omega-3 fatty acids was non-significant
(Hannestad & Bloch, 2012), only to be countered by a re-anal-
ysis finding the opposite (Martin et al., 2012). Some supple-
ments, such as folic acid, may work best if used complementa-
rily, i.e. in addition to, rather than alternatively, i.e. instead of
conventional treatments (Taylor et al., 2004). Vitamin D sup-
plements may only be worth considering in people who clearly
have a vitamin D deficit or who live in geographical regions
where sun exposure is low during winter time (Parker & Brot-
chie, 2011). They may work less well in those without an ob-
vious vitamin D deficiency. This suggests that nutritional defi-
cits identified in mental disorders do not automatically pave the
way to treatment strategies. It is much easier to show that the
lack of substance may lead to a deterioration of mood than the
replacement of the substance lead to an improvement. Because
once a depressive episode is set into motion, it may maintain
itself, even if a precipitating factor such as a nutritional deficit
is corrected.
The Tip of the Iceberg
Possibly, the failure to deliver robust evidence for food or
supplement based interventions also stems from the fact that
major depression is a multi-factorial condition. Genetic, social
and psychological factors may play an equally important role as
food deficiencies and all these factors may conspire together to
bring on a major depressive episode. But if many factors cause
or contribute to a mental health problem, it is unlikely that fix-
ing just one factor will solve the whole problem. However, if a
factor such as a clearly identified nutritional deficiency, could
be rectified it should. Thus, correcting underlying nutritional
deficit s may be necessary to treat depression, but in most cases
this is not sufficient and nor will it ever be.
Lifestyle Instead of Diet
As multifactorial problems require multifactorial solutions, it
follows that lifestyle interventions covering various aspects of
wellbeing may be superior to dietary interventions for most suf-
ferers of major depression. We know for instance that physical
activity is beneficial for mood (as long as we do not overdo it).
Alcohol, smoking and substance abuse are other worthwhile as-
pects to consider (Berks et al., 2013). And finally, supportive
psychotherapy and motivational interviewing are integral con-
stituents of many life-style interventions. Sometimes, it is even
possible to get the best of both worlds through one single in-
tervention. After all, the bes t way to stock up on vi ta mi n D is to
go out and take a walk in the sun.
Conflict of Interest
Ursula Werneke is writing a book in a related area to be pub-
lished by Kiener Verlag, Munich, Germany
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