You know how kids get hyped up on sugar and then crash? Boy, aren’t you so glad that all of us grow out of that when we grow up?
Yes, that’s tongue-in-cheek. We might get better at managing our moods as we get older, and our emotions and energy levels are a bit more within our scope of control. This allows us to keep focused at work even when we’re hungry and eat an ice cream cone and not run around the living room yelling at the top of our lungs.
But truth be told, the same metabolic processes are still going on in our bodies, the same changes in our blood sugar, the same changes in energy level coursing throughout our muscles and brains. Just because we’re better at appearing stable doesn’t mean things are actually stable inside.
For example, have you ever seen the study that looked at the differences in decisions Israeli judges passed on similar cases, merely based on whether the hearing was held before or after their morning snack or lunch break? Even the best and most well-trained of us still get hangry.
Let’s say you get up in the morning and you’re in a rush. You pour yourself a cup of coffee with sugar and French vanilla creamer and head out. By the time you get to work, the coffee is gone, and your hunger is staved off for a while. But 10AM hits and you start to feel fatigued and restless again. You go for a second cup of coffee from the communal coffee pot, and grab a donut from the box someone brought in.
For lunch, you stop by the local sandwich shop to get a hoagie, some chips, and a soda. After lunch, you’re feeling pretty good and really getting stuff done, until about 2:30PM when the afternoon slump begins. You peruse the vending machine in the hall and grab a candy bar (just for today, because that big deadline is coming up and you need to be productive). By the time you get finished with your work, it’s 6PM and you’re exhausted.
You finally head home, ready to crash, only to find the house is a mess and no one has thought about dinner. You’re irritated and snappish. You head to the freezer, find a couple of frozen pizzas to throw in the oven, and snack on some corn chips while you wait for it to heat up. After the kids go to bed, it’s a glass of port wine, a big bowl of ice cream, and some TV to help you wind down. Then, around 11PM, you head to bed for some poor-quality sleep, only to wake up and do it again the next day.
Look, work and family life are tough enough on their own. You don’t need your diet to just be making things more difficult for you to handle. Between meals or snacks when you’re feeling sluggish, hangry, irritated, and bummed out, it’s very possible that your mood is low because your blood sugar is low.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the low blood sugars tend to trigger us to crave sugar, in the body’s attempt to fix the problem. Once we’ve eaten something sweet, our blood sugar spikes and we feel much better – usually. But for some people, elevated blood sugar can feel more like anxiety or just the uncomfortable sensation of feeling “wired.”
So what do we do to stop this vicious cycle?
Obviously, the Standard American Diet (nicknamed the “SAD” diet for good reason) isn’t doing us much good with an average added sugar intake of 17 teaspoons per day, most of it from ultra-processed food.
Cutting back on the added sugar in your diet is the simplest and, honestly, the most important step in breaking the hangry-anxious-hangry cycle. Consider all the sources – even the “healthier” choices like honey, maple syrup. Consider artificial sweeteners, as well, as they can trick your body’s hormones into spiking (like insulin, the hormone that brings sugar from the bloodstream into your cells where it can be used as energy) – and so they might cause some of the same symptoms, even without the calories or actual sugar content.
Once you’ve done that, if you’re still feeling some symptoms, it might be time to consider balancing the nutrients in your meals and snacks, and decreasing the glycemic load of your meals and snacks.
By “balance,” I mean trying to eat foods or combinations of foods that have a variety of nutrients. For example, I really like my clients to eat protein and fiber pairings for snacks, as these combinations are very satisfying, slow-digesting, and provide a longer-term source of energy (and thus a more stable mood). Some common examples of this might be plain Greek yogurt with blueberries, cucumbers with hummus, a boiled egg and a sliced kiwi, or carrot sticks with almond butter.
Glycemic index (GI) is a measurement that ranks foods from 0-100 based on their impact on blood sugar, with pure glucose being 100. This can be very useful information to know if you’re trying to keep your blood sugar from spiking, but it’s only really useful in combination with the glycemic load (GL), which takes into account the amount of carbs per serving of the food. For example, watermelon and cantaloupe are technically high-GI foods, but since their digestible carb content per serving is relatively low, their GL is considered low. Your blood sugar probably won’t spike much after eating a serving of melon.
In general, eating a lower-glycemic load diet follows pretty well along with our general idea of what a healthy diet looks like. Foods that have lower glycemic load will usually be the foods that are:
If you’re interested in learning more about how a healthy diet can boost your mood, reach out or schedule an appointment! I provide virtual telehealth nutrition care services in Colorado, California, Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Michigan, Virginia, Arizona, Alaska, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Washington, and Oregon, and I’d love to work with you!
Erica Golden, RDN, LD, IFNCP
Mental Health, Eating Disorders, and Gut Health Functional Dietitian Nutritionist
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Erica Golden, RDN