My  Serendepity

Emotions and nutrition, an inseparable combination

By linda Galimberti

Do emotions and nutrition go hand in hand? What role do they play in our bodies? Post-Lockdown we all need to restart, first and foremost with ourselves. Restarting means lining up a few actions and “at our own pace” returning to a healthy normality. How often do we make automatic choices in the way we eat? How often do we eat to comfort ourselves and not just to feed ourselves?


Many of the decisions we make are related to the environment around us, the people we interact with most, the pleasant or unpleasant situations that occur during the day.

In every age, food has always played a central role in human life: it has always been a reason for sharing, uniting, gathering and communicating.

All too often, however, the hunger pangs we feel are not dictated by a physiological need, but by emotions and moods, especially negative ones. Poor nutrition can lead to physical exhaustion, anxiety, stress, nervousness and sleep disorders. In the long run, this can trigger mechanisms that lead to eating out of anger, boredom, sadness or to appease and cover up all those unpleasant emotions that we cannot accept.

It is a well-known fact that body and mind work in synergy, and if the well-being of one of these two factors is lacking, the other is automatically affected.

Therefore, it is necessary to take care of one’s body through a healthy and correct diet and adequate physical exercise. In parallel, the mind must also be stimulated to avoid dysfunctional eating behaviour.

Emotional hunger is often used as an anaesthetic to avoid dealing with situations that are difficult to change, thus entering a vicious circle that will lead, in most cases, to more suffering.

In the long run, this behaviour causes us to lose control over the quantity and quality of the food we eat, leading to a preference for highly palatable, high-calorie, but unhealthy foods.

In recent years, feeding ourselves has become too easy. It is knowing how to choose that has become more difficult. Everyone knows by now that in order to reach and maintain a healthy body weight, it is necessary to eat a balanced diet and be active. Yet the percentage of obese children and adults increases every year. This is because many emotional and psychological factors, which are often the cause of an unhealthy lifestyle, are neglected.

What are the causes?

The causes that trigger these mechanisms differ from person to person, but, in general, the most frequent situations are related to these reasons: stress or family and work problems; dissatisfaction with oneself; feeling of emptiness and loneliness; social influences dictated by fashion and bad advertising.

How do we recognise and counteract emotional hunger? It is very important to listen to yourself and ask yourself what emotion is driving you to food. It only takes a few minutes to reflect and ask yourself whether you are really hungry or whether it is a result of the perceived emotion.     The alternatives are many and varied: you can go for a walk, drink tea or herbal tea, eat a crunchy vegetable or fruit, listen to music, read a book, do sport or practice a relaxation technique.

When emotional hunger starts to become a serious problem, you need to seek professional help. Asking for help is the first step to identifying the cause of these behaviours and finding the best strategy for a good relationship with food, your body and your health.

What not to do!

The biggest mistake people make is to focus only on what, i.e. how much we eat, when in fact we should be asking ourselves why we make certain choices, why we eat even when we are not hungry and why we cannot restrain ourselves. It is important to understand why we eat even when we feel full.

When we are at the table we have to switch off the autopilot and be present to ourselves while we eat: we have to relearn how to feel hunger, what portion sizes are appropriate for our body and what food can affect both our health and our mood.

An excellent ally: physical activity

Physical activity is essential for physical and mental wellbeing: as well as helping to maintain an adequate body weight, it boosts the functioning of the heart and lungs, preventing cardiovascular disease, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It also reduces the risk of developing diseases such as diabetes and osteoporosis.

In the elderly it brings countless benefits, as it improves cardiac circulation, maintains motor coordination and muscle tone and strengthens bones.

Exercise also promotes the production of endorphins, the ‘happy hormones’.       There are several nutrients that can improve mood:

  • Serotonin is a neurotransmitter synthesised mainly in the gastrointestinal tract and central nervous system. It has numerous functions and is involved in the regulation of important physiological processes such as the sleep-wake cycle, hunger-satiety, intestinal motility and mood.

To increase serotonin levels, it is good to consume the right amount of carbohydrates (sugars), particularly from wholemeal products, legumes and potatoes. Green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, bananas, cherries, plums, pineapples, kiwis, walnuts and almonds are also rich in serotonin.

It is also necessary to get the right amount of B vitamins, which are rich in milk, fish, whole grains, legumes, honey, citrus fruits, bananas, pineapples, spinach, cabbage, asparagus, Swiss chard and lettuce.

In particular, to avoid states of inactivity and tiredness, it is good to introduce a sufficient dose of vitamin B1, which is found in cereals, pork, brewer’s yeast, potatoes, cauliflower, oranges and eggs. Vitamin D is also essential for feeling good and avoiding mood disorders: it is found in fish, egg yolks, and liver.

An iron deficiency can cause depression, drowsiness, fatigue and attention problems. Liver, broccoli, asparagus, parsley, seafood, iron-enriched cereals, nuts, vegetables, meat and dried fruit are other recommended foods.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids can also influence mood, behaviour and personality, limiting states of depression. They are found naturally in fish, seafood, meat and nut oils. Many foods such as bread, yoghurt, orange juice, milk and eggs are often fortified with omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Magnesium helps you sleep better. Foods rich in magnesium are almonds, spinach, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.

Let’s not forget chocolate, especially dark chocolate, which has an important effect on mood and reduces tension.

Caffeine, found in coffee and tea, increases alertness and energy (decreasing drowsiness and fatigue) and may also calm headaches. Beware, however: it can amplify anxiety in sensitive individuals. Changing habits is never immediate, let alone simple. It must be an investment, for the present and especially for the future.

The aim in following a healthy diet is to learn to manage and accept small changes, without considering them as deprivation, and above all to learn to regulate oneself and to give the right importance to food. Healthy habits have to be internalised and this takes time. There is no point in restricting or compensating for long or short periods.