Can a sugar high make kids bounce off the walls? Most parents would swear to it. But according to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center — a Harvard teaching hospital — numerous studies have failed to find the link between sugar and hyperactivity. So is the food-mood link a myth? Not quite, but it’s more about feelings.
When it comes to food and mood, you are what you eat.
“The link between emotions and eating is no myth,” says Sherry L. Pagoto, PhD, associate professor of preventive and behavioral medicine at University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. “People do eat to feel better, so the link is there.”
1. Unhealthy Diet and Depression
Long-term exposure to an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression, according to the findings of a 2014 study in the online journal PLoS One that looked at diet and depression in 3,663 people. What constituted an unhealthy diet, for purposes of the study, was one that was high in sugar and processed foods.
“One of the symptoms used to diagnose depression is change in appetite, so there certainly could be a link between diet and depression,” says Anil Malhotra, MD, director of psychiatric research at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y.
2. Sugar and Food Addiction
Research also hints at a link between sugar and addictive eating. For instance, a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that, of 81 obese people seeking treatment for binge eating, 57 percent met the criteria for food addiction. Foods that people were addicted to were high in fat and high in sugar.
“Not surprising,” says Pagoto. “When people crave foods, they don’t reach for carrot sticks. Sweets and fats trigger the same pleasure centers in the brain that addictive drugs do.”
3. The Sugar-Stress Connection
Stress causes your body to seek sugar as quick fuel for a surge of energy, according to the American Psychological Association.
“That may be why many people eat sweets when they are under stress,” Pagoto says. “We teach people to use healthy behaviors to reduce stress instead of food. One of the best ways to reduce stress is with exercise. You can start to think of exercise as not just a chore but a way to feel better.”
4. Blood Sugar and Schizophrenia
Could a serious mental health disorder like schizophrenia be linked to blood sugar? “Diabetes is more common in people with schizophrenia,” says Dr. Malhotra. “There are some older studies that suggest a link between sugar metabolism and schizophrenia. The link is not strong, but it is possible.”
Take, for instance, a 2006 study in the journal Diabetes Care, which looked at the link between blood sugar and schizophrenia. In that study, blood testing in 200 people with schizophrenia found high blood sugar in 7 percent and diabetes in more than 14 percent.
5. Diet Quality and Mental Health for Adolescents
A 2014 study of more than 4,000 students in New Zealand found that a high-quality diet was associated with better mental health and a low-quality diet was associated with poor mental health. The findings were published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
“The link between diet and mental health probably goes both ways,” Pagoto says. “If you have mental health issues, it may make it harder for you to eat well. A poor diet may also contribute to poor mental health.”
6. Mindful Eating for Better Mental Health
“Eating foods high in sugar to escape a bad mood is called emotional eating,” Pagoto says. “Mindful eating is the antidote to eating for escape. To eat mindfully, you learn to eat slowly, without distraction, and to savor the experience of healthy food.” Research bears this out. In a review of 21 studies on mindful eating, published in the journal Obesity Reviews in 2014, 86 percent of the studies reported less binge eating and less emotional eating when mindful practices were applied.