Can food make you happy?
Short-term stimulation of dopamine might work but beware of it as treatment for mood
Assorted natural sources of dopamine: Dopamine is also linked with addictive and compulsive behaviour.
Perhaps a good place to start is what our brains look like when we’re happy. According to multiple sources, including Christopher Bergland, athlete and author of The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, writing for Psychology Today, certain brain molecules, neurochemicals and neurotransmitters have been linked to our happiness levels. These include oxytocin, adrenaline, GABA, endocannabinoids, dopamine and serotonin.
These happiness promoters aren’t limited to brain function, and certain foods are believed to activate these transmitters. Interestingly, in a piece for Harvard Health blog called Gut Feeling: how Food Affects your Mood, contributor Uma Naidoo writes that 90 per cent of serotonin receptors are located in the gut.
“The gut-brain axis offers us a greater understanding of the connection between diet and disease, including depression and anxiety,” writes Naidoo in the 2018 piece. Perhaps knowing that so many of your serotonin receptors live in your gut might help encourage a taste for kombucha? Foods that are believed to encourage a healthy gut include fermented and probiotic foods, and plant-based foods.
Dopamine, otherwise known as the reward hormone, seems to really like food. A recent study published on Science Daily (sciencedaily.com) suggests that your brain rewards you twice during every meal: at the time the food is first eaten and again once the food reaches the stomach.
On BBC’s Good Food website, health editor Sarah Lienard takes a deep dive into the weight-loss regime known as “dopamine diet”, weighing up its pros, cons and effectiveness. “Protein foods are made from the building blocks of amino acids (including tyrosine), which are essential to the production of dopamine,” writes Lienard. “It has therefore been suggested that upping protein intake may also boost dopamine production without increasing appetite.”
There’s even a dopamine diet recipe section on that website, selected by the website’s nutritionist to complement the dopamine diet. Some recurring ingredients include dairy, unprocessed meats, omega-3 rich fish, and eggs.
Dopamine is also linked with addictive and compulsive behaviour; its name comes up in the debate around why people eat junk food and causes for the obesity epidemic. Beyond the dopamine hit, junk food doesn’t seem to make us very happy in the long term. It’s quite possible that eating calorific foods high in sugar or fat, or ultra-processed foods, may make you feel happy in the moment of consumption. But, as is well-documented, chronically over-indulging in them is continuously linked to obesity and cardio-vascular problems.
Though it appears to be true – anecdotally and scientifically – that food can make you happy, the quality and quantity of that happiness is dependent on a vast amount of variables.
“We should be careful about using food as the only treatment for mood,” Naidoo is careful to point out in her piece on the Harvard Health blog. “And when we talk about mood problems we are referring to mild and moderate forms of depression and anxiety.”
If your unhappiness runs deep, a happy meal may not be able to fix it on its own. Eat well, but also seek help if you need it.