By Sarah A LoBisco, ND

In the past few weeks, I was pleased (and intrigued) by the various articles I came across on how food can not only affect your body’s optimal functioning, but also your mind and resultant behavior.

I wrote in a previous blog how the brain can become addicted to food, just like any other substance. Recent evidence is that food is not just about nutrients or calories, but about programming our body for health. In his recent article, Dr. Hyman explains the connection:

Food literally talks to our genes. Food is not just a source of calories, it is also a source of INFORMATION.

The key is to send the right information to your genes by eating whole, real, food — mostly plants. Specific nutrients or plant compounds bind to receptors in cells, translating messages from the foods we eat or vitamins we take in into instructions that are carried out by our cells through their effect on our DNA.

One study looked at the connection between mood, health, and nutrients. The authors found that fish oil reduced anxiety and also suppressed inflammation in the body. This makes sense considering that fatty acids are vital components involved in brain functioning, neurotransmitter signaling, and controlling inflammatory processes. (Read more about the inflamed body, inflamed brain):

These data suggest that n-3 supplementation can reduce inflammation and anxiety even among healthy young adults. The reduction in anxiety symptoms associated with n-3 supplementation provides the first evidence that n-3 may have potential anxiolytic benefits for individuals without an anxiety disorder diagnosis. identifier: NCT00519779. PMID: 21784145

Other studies have also reported a connection between intake of fatty acids and alleviating low mood. According to the Journal of Clinical Investigation, this mood effect also affected hunger cues:

More specifically, fatty acid infusion attenuated both the behavioral and neural responses to sad emotion induction. Although the mechanisms underlying this interaction remain to be elucidated, our results may have important implications for understanding the interplay among emotions, hunger, food intake, and meal-induced sensations in health and disorders such as obesity, eating disorders, functional dyspepsia, and depression.

Vital Choice pointed out in their article that the impact of the above findings could affect people’s ability to manage their weight and cravings through food choices:

New findings support the idea that fatty foods can elevate your mood … with obvious implications for efforts to maintain a healthy weight. But the news has a silver lining, in that it suggests that if people are made aware of this, they could make healthier choices among fatty foods. That is, they could pick fatty foods that satiate them faster than empty-calorie junk foods, while delivering nutrients (like omega-3s) that tend to improve metabolism and overall health.

The mechanism behind this healthy fats and lowered appetite connection was made by Dr. Mercola earlier this week when discussing saturated fats:

Fats also slow down absorption of your meal so that you feel satiated longer, which in and of itself can help you shed some pounds if your problem is frequent snacking due to constant hunger. Protein will further curb your hunger, which I’ll discuss below

Furthermore, research is indicating that the food-thought connection went both ways.  One study showed that if indivduals considered all qualities of the food, including the health aspects, it modulated what food to choose. Not brain science, but still it showed the power our thoughts have on our ability to regulate our appetite more effectively and help to eliminate emotional eating. (Here’s where using neurotransmitters for weight loss comes in handy in my practice).

According to Vital Choice:

Two years ago, Professors Antonio Rangel of Caltech and Todd Hare of the University of Zurich published a paper describing differences in the brains of people who are good at exercising self-control. They found that everyone uses the same area of the brain – the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, or vmPFC – to make value-laden decisions like what to munch on. But they discovered that a second brain area – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex or dlPFC – “lights up” when a person is exercising self-control during the decision-making process. When the dlPFC is active during a food-choosing decision, it forces the vmPFC to weigh a food’s perceived health benefits as well its taste and other attributes. And the new study reveals that “external cues” can help kick-start the dlPFC and thereby encourage more self-control.

An example of which regions in the brain are activated by environmental cues in food based decisions can be summarized in the table below. This table demonstrates that an emotional decision vs. a rational decision will signal different parts of the brain and resultant food behavior. (Therefore, you are actually modulating your next meal by reading this post and the effects of healthy fats for your health!)

Table 4. Regions more active in health blocks than natural blocks (J of Neuroscience)

Region BA Side Cluster size x y z Peak Z score

Inferior frontal gyrus 47/10/46 L 661 _42 41 1 6.09*

Inferior parietal lobule 40 L 435 _48 _64 55 5.34*

Middle temporal gyrus 21 R 110 66 _40 _14 5.21*

Inferior parietal lobule 40 R 86s 54 _61 46 5.20*

Superior frontal gyrus 8/9 L 421 _18 56 31 4.97*

Middle temporal gyrus 21/22 L 240 _54 _31 _2 4.42*

Middle frontal gyrus 10 R 40 39 50 13 3.9

Middle frontal gyrus † 9/8 L 72 _36 8 43 3.84*

Superior frontal gyrus 9 R 22 12 47 37 3.8

Height threshold, t_3.37; extent threshold, 20 voxels (3_3_3 mm). L, Left; R, right.

*The activation survives whole-brain correction (p _ 0.05) for multiple comparisons at the cluster level (height

threshold, t_3.37; extent, 67 voxels).

†Referred to as DLPFC-U in DCM figures.

Now, fat is not the only nutrient which helps control hunger and weight. A study in obesity reported that dietary protein for breakfast helped control eating behavior in a positive way for adolescent girls:

In summary, the addition of breakfast led to alterations in brain activation in regions previously associated with food motivation and reward with additional alterations following the higher-protein breakfast. These data suggest that increased dietary protein at breakfast might be a beneficial strategy to reduce reward-driven eating behavior in overweight teen girls. Due to the small sample size, caution is warranted when interpreting these preliminary findings.

Environment also plays a role in choosing food and affecting overall mood. Dr. Amen reported in his newsletter that happy eating at home yields healthier bodies:

So suggests a new study probing why people tend to eat more nutritious meals at home than away from home. The findings point out that the psychological factors involved in eating pleasantly at home, may help override humans’ wired-in preference for high-fat, sugary foods.

Home is where people often feel most content, and the positive emotions associated with home-cooked meals may be part of the recipe for a healthy diet, researchers indicate.

Therefore, not only is food impacting our mood, but our thoughts and environment are affecting our food choices. This demonstrates that a diet which only considers food content and not brain and body chemistry won’t provide lasting results for addictive patterns or weight management. The whole person must be considered and supported. I have found that when my clients and I work together to balance the full matrix of connections of a healthy body (hormones, neurotransmitters, emotions, digestion, structure, inflammation, oxidative stress, and energy), the results are cummulative effects that last into all arenas of health.

A NATURAL MEDICINE KIT (Learn more here)


Dr. Hyman. How to Optimize Your Nutrition & Achieve Vibrant Health. July 30, 2011.

Dr. Hyman. Not Having Enough Food Causes Obesity and Diabetes. July 30, 2011.

Amen, D. Happy Eating at Home Yields Healthier Bodies. Amen Clinic Blog. Accessed August 2, 2011.

Heather J. Leidy, Rebecca J. Lepping, Cary R. Savage and Corey T. Harris. Neural Responses to Visual Food Stimuli After a Normal vs. Higher Protein Breakfast in Breakfast-Skipping Teens: A Pilot fMRI Study (abstract). Obesity , (5 May 2011) | doi:10.1038/oby.2011.108

Van Oudenhove L, McKie S, Lassman D, Uddin B, Paine P, Coen S, Gregory L, Tack J, Aziz Q. Fatty acid-induced gut-brain signaling attenuates neural and behavioral effects of sad emotion in humans. J Clin Invest. 2011 Jul 25. pii: 46380. doi: 10.1172/JCI46380. [Epub ahead of print]

Wetherby, C. Think Healthy, Eat Healthy? Vital choice Newsletter. July 28,2011.,b1h0JlRD

Wetherby, C.Fatty Foods Boost Mood. Vital choice Newsletter. July 28,2011.,b1h0JlRD

Hare TA, Malmaud J, Rangel A. Focusing Attention on the Health Aspects of Foods Changes Value Signals in vmPFC and Improves Dietary Choice. J Neurosci, 27 July 2011, 31(30):11077-11087; doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.6383-10.2011

Mercola, J. To shed pounds, You must eliminate this from your diet.  July 29, 2011.

Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R, Malarkey WB, Glaser R.Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: A randomized controlled trial. [abstract] Brain Behav Immun. 2011 Jul 19. Accessed August 4, 2011 at