Many believe to know how food impacts mood. Coffee and sugar makes people upbeat and happy, turkey’s tryptophan can lead to naps, and vegetables make some feel virtuous, right? However, these “facts” aren’t necessarily true. What’s more, researchers at the University of Binghamton have found that how certain foods influence the brain depends on how old you are.
For the study, published in the latest issue of Nutritional Neuroscience, scientists sent out anonymous surveys all over the world via various social media platforms to professional and social networks. They asked participants questions about what they typically eat each week, how often they exercise, and whether they take vitamin supplements. They also asked questions to assess their level of mental distress, namely depression and anxiety. Then they made a lot of very sophisticated calculations about the results they received from the nearly 600 respondents and came up with two rather significant conclusions.
Among young adults, ages 18-29, those who reported eating meat less than three times a week and exercising less than three times a week were much more likely to report mental distress. Among mature adults, ages 30 and older, those who ate fruit more frequently had less mental distress, and those who consumed more coffee and high-glycemic index foods had more mental distress.
Just to clarify, meat didn’t affect the olds, while fruit and coffee didn’t have an impact on the young folks. The reason might lie in the prefrontal cortex.
“Since birth the brain undergoes many changes and the last part to mature is the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that’s going to help with making smart decisions, planning for the future, and also control emotion,” lead author Lina Begdache, an assistant professor of health and wellness studies at Binghamton, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “There’s evidence now saying that the end of that continuum would be the late 20s.”
So while that prefrontal cortex is still maturing, Begdache theorizes that people may still need to eat foods like meat that provide nutrients that help produce brain chemicals.
“I’ve always read in the literature that people who eat a lot of meat have more mental health problems,” Begdache says. “That [result] was very surprising to the point where I was thinking, ‘Did we get the right results?’ But then when I looked into the mechanism of how that could be possible, then I found very good evidence that could describe how meat could be related to a better mood in young people.”
Older adults have different brain chemistry needs.
“As we get older, we get less able to manage our blood sugar, and when we have fluctuation in blood sugar, we also have fluctuation in brain chemicals,” Begdache explains. Older adults are also more susceptible to inflammation — in the brain and everywhere else — which has been shown to correlate with depression. Antioxidants are the best antidote to the free radicals released by inflammation, which explains why eating more fruit helps the mature adults stay happy.
Begdache acknowledges that this study provides a very broad generalization of how foods affect neurochemistry. The survey didn’t ask how healthy people are but rather what foods they eat, for instance. But the findings can be a helpful guideline.
If you’re feeling anxious and you’re under 30, you could think about whether you’ve been getting enough protein and exercise lately. If you’re over 30, you could replace that third cup of coffee with a fruit salad to see if it boosts your mood.
“I would just keep this information in the back of my mind,” Begdache said. “And then maybe look at my own diet and see, if I do have mental distress, am I doing something that is adding to it?”