Warmth. Coziness. Food coma. All of these terms can describe the satisfied feelings we experience after eating a delicious meal. When it comes to this time of year, a lot of the good feelings are also due to time spent together (assuming your family doesn’t drive you crazy!) and a jovial holiday spirit, but food’s role in the whole thing can’t be denied. Is there science behind our blissful food feelings? Let’s find out.
Savoring an Experience
According to research by Cornell University psychology professor Thomas Gilovich, experiences actually make us happier than material goods we own and keep. That’s because we quickly adapt to the things we’re surrounded by; experiences are moments we can reflect back on, but not truly revisit. In study after study that Gilovich references in his research, experiences are remembered more positively over time than material goods. They can also contribute meaningfully to our personal identities, and they play a larger part in fostering our relationships compared to material goods.
Well, there’s no experience like a food-related experience! Instead of buying the latest smartphone, take someone you love out to dinner at that restaurant you’ve been eyeing for months. Instead of buying tons of new holiday decorations, spend a little extra on quality ingredients for a holiday meal you make with family. You’ll likely be left with fonder memories and a richer sense of reward.
The sweet sleepy feeling you get after Thanksgiving dinner may not be due to turkey’s tryptophan after all. Turkey doesn’t contain much more tryptophan than any other meat, and it isn’t enough to knock you out — especially since the amino acids and proteins in turkey slow your absorption of tryptophan.
Instead, that sleepiness is likely linked to the high carb intake (mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallow, dinner rolls, pumpkin pie…) coupled with alcohol. It’s not an illusion: loading up on carbs actually boosts your production of serotonin, making you feel happier. CNN cites a 2009 study out of Australia in which low-carb dieters were the unhappiest of all diet types.
In fact, if you’re sleep-deprived (read: miserable), just seeing images of carb-, sugar-, and fat-loaded foods can perk you up by triggering the brain’s “reward center,” according to a Columbia University and St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center study cited by CNN.
Destress with Dessert
All science aside, it’s pretty common to seek comfort in some sugary goodness. Pizza, burgers, and macaroni and cheese hold a special place in our hearts, but sometimes ice cream, brownies, or pies are the only answer. Processed sugars aren’t all that kind to our bodies, but one simple dessert can satisfy your sweet tooth and improve our mood — here comes the science!
In a German study, a distribution of high-anxiety and low-anxiety participants ate about 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate daily for 2 weeks. In high-anxiety participants, blood and urine samples taken during the experiment showed decreased presence of cortisol: the stress hormone. On top of that, any differences that high stress caused in energy metabolism and gut microbial activities were slightly normalized because of the chocolate intake. Not bad for a scrumptious dessert!
Pass the… Sauerkraut?
Speaking of gut care, fermented foods can alter the dominant bacteria types in your gut — and believe it or not, that can actually impact your mood. Health.com cited a Dutch study in which volunteers were given probiotics or placebos regularly. After 4 weeks, those who received the probiotics were much less affected by sad moods, in part because they experienced fewer aggressive thoughts and were less likely to overthink things. So if you get the winter blues, stock up on probiotic-rich fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kefir, or consider looking into probiotic supplements.
Fruits and Veggies for a Better Tomorrow
Unfortunately for some, nobody tells you to eat fewer fruits and veggies. Among Americans, 93% actively try to include vegetables in their diets, and nearly the same amount (92%) do the same for fruits. As you might expect, far fewer actively try to include things like sugar and fat in their diets — but many more don’t really think about how much they’re consuming.
There are so many reasons to incorporate more produce into your diet, and those reasons now go beyond physical health: your next spear of broccoli could help keep a smile on your face.
In a British Journal of Health Psychology study of 300 young adults, those who ate more servings of fruits and vegetables reported feeling happier — and the effect lasted through the day after the increased servings were consumed. “More servings” in this case translated to 7-8 daily servings of fruits and/or vegetables, so stock up on your sides at the Thanksgiving table! Cranberry sauce and Brussels sprouts on Thursday might just improve your Black Friday spirit the next day.
Comfort Food: Fact or Fiction?
What’s your comfort food? It seems noodles top the list at our office, but personal attachments can make almost anything a comfort food.
The unhealthy foods we crave when we feel down trigger endorphins and insulin production, which can improve our mood. It turns out that beyond just satisfying our cravings, comfort food DOES make us happy… but perhaps no happier than other foods, or even no food at all. Wait, what?
Study participants who watched a film inducing negative moods were subsequently given an individually identified comfort food, a “regular” food, or no food — and all showed mood improvements following the film. We may associate our comfort foods with happiness, but if this study stands up to scrutiny, could the impact be all in our heads?
Another study related to nostalgia found that memories sparked by a scent (such as from a comfort food) have more emotional details than memories recalled by visual cues. This could mean that personally nostalgic characteristics of comfort foods impact our mood and state of mind — but there’s still debate on whether specific indulgences can really be said to make us happy.
The holidays are made for a little bit of indulgence, so don’t deny yourself your favorite treats! Eat what makes you happy, both mentally and physically. What are your happy foods?