You want to eat right and don’t know where to start. So, you find yourself surfing the web for examples of “good” and “bad” foods. A list of healthy options is essential for paving the road to a healthy diet. But lists do little to educate you on why good foods are, in fact, good for you.

You can pick better ingredients for healthier meals if you understand how the food you eat creates usable energy in your body. The glycemic index can be just the tool you need to build a better understanding of how food works in your body.

You already know that the food you eat becomes energy. But learning how to use the glycemic index can illuminate just how much energy you can derive from certain foods. It can also teach you about the quality and dependability of that energy.

Glucose—Derived from Food to Fuel the Body

The energy currency for your body is glucose. This simple sugar is an abundant carbohydrate in your diet. Not all of the carbohydrates you consume are in the form of glucose. But they can be transformed to provide this fuel. Throughout digestion, complex carbs are broken down into single glucose molecules to be used for energy or undigested and used to help remove waste.

Glucose—once it’s in this pure form—travels through the blood stream. It provides cellular energy that can be harnessed immediately. But not all energy is needed right away. Sometimes this energy is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen instead.  The pancreas helps your body make decisions about when to use or store glucose.

These decisions are important. Keeping blood sugar levels in a healthy, normal range makes it easier for your body to manage all the energy it gets from your diet.

Glycemic Index

The glycemic index (GI) provides a way to help you predict the blood-glucose-raising potential of a food. It’s a way of measuring the rate at which carbohydrates are broken down and appear in blood as simple sugars. In general, the more refined and processed the food, the faster it is broken down and the higher the GI.

Some foods can pump a lot of sugar into the blood stream in a short period of time. Foods that increase blood glucose levels quickly are called high-glycemic foods. Others let go of small amounts of glucose over the course of several hours. These are low-glycemic foods.

Let’s look at how glycemic index is calculated. The standard for comparison is glucose itself. It has a glycemic index of 100. The fact that the GI of glucose is 100 is incredibly significant. It represents how quickly food can be converted to blood glucose.

To find the glycemic index of all other foods, they must be compared to the GI of glucose. A pancake, an orange, and a handful of peanuts have very different GIs. That is because they are digested at different rates and cause different blood sugar responses.

Food Glycemic Index (GI)
Glucose 100
Pancake 67
Orange 42
Peanuts 18

(For a more comprehensive chart, there are a few good options you can turn to: The University of SydneyLinus Pauling Institute, and Research Gate.)

When you eat a pancake, orange, peanuts, or any other food, your blood sugar increases. A medium-sized pancake creates a blood-glucose response that’s 67 percent of the response to pure glucose. An orange, is 42 percent of that glucose response. And peanuts influence blood glucose very little when compared to glucose—only 18 percent.

Basically, when you know the GI of any food, you know how it will generally impact blood-sugar levels relative to glucose. Glycemic index tables list hundreds of foods. Some with high, moderate, and low GIs. Here’s how the categories break down:

  • High GI >= 70. Potatoes, cornflakes, jelly beans, watermelon, and white bread are all high GI foods.
  • Moderate GI 56-69. Rice, banana, honey, and pineapple are moderate GI foods.
  • Low GI < 55. Lentils, carrots, apples, oranges, and pears are all low GI foods.

The glycemic index has a lot of strengths. It highlights the ability of foods to raise blood sugar; and allows blood-glucose response comparison between foods. But the glycemic index doesn’t consider the quantity of the food being consumed.

GI values remain the same for all foods, no matter how much you eat. But that doesn’t mean that eating a lot of a high-glycemic food has the same effect on blood sugar as eating only a little bit. In fact, the opposite is true.

So, how can you use the glycemic index to make smart eating choices? It is hard to judge the difference in quality of foods when pretzels, white bread, and crackers have similar GIs to watermelon and pineapple. Luckily, there’s a solution.

Glycemic Load

Cue glycemic load. A robust, qualitative, and quantitative way to use information from the glycemic index to understand how food affects blood sugar.

Glycemic load (GL) accounts for the quantity of the food in question. GL reflects the blood-glucose-raising potential of how much of a certain food you eat. You can calculate glycemic load for any given food by dividing the GI by 100, then multiplying that number by the amount of available carbohydrates in a serving.

GLfood = (GIfood / 100) x (grams of carbohydrates – grams of fiber)

* Remember, fiber is the material in food that isn’t fully digested by your body. So, when figuring out how many available carbohydrates are in your favorite snack, subtract the grams of fiber from the total grams of carbohydrates.

The values associated with glycemic load are much smaller than glycemic index:

  • High GL >= 20.
  • Moderate GL 11-19.
  • Low GL < 10.

GL takes into consideration the amount of digestible carbohydrates in each serving of food. This is important because sometimes foods with similar GIs have dramatically higher carbohydrate counts.

To demonstrate how glycemic load accounts for carbohydrate content, let’s look at an example. A cup of watermelon and a cup of cornflakes have very similar GIs. They are both high-glycemic foods. But cornflakes and watermelon have very different GLs.

The GL for a cup of cornflakes is 20, making it a high-glycemic-load food. The watermelon’s GL is only eight. These numbers tell you that there are a lot more carbohydrates in one serving of cornflakes than there are in watermelon. To be exact, one cup of cornflakes has 26 grams of carbs. The same amount of watermelon has only 11.

Since watermelon has fewer carbs, it also has fewer calories per serving. Watermelon is a better choice than cornflakes when you’re looking for a quick snack. It’s less calorie dense but just as effective at providing the energy you need to make it to your next meal.

What if instead of one cup of watermelon, you ate two cups? GL reflects the size of your portion of food. It can tell you that the amount of food you eat also influences your blood sugar.

Generally, low GL foods have fewer calories than high GL foods. So high calorie foods aren’t the only option when you need a boost of energy. Low-glycemic-load foods are equipped to provide fuel for your body with a lower risk of overeating and weight gain.

Using GI and GL to Shape a Healthy Diet

You already know that high GI foods act rapidly to influence blood sugar, providing quick energy. However, this energy is usually short-lived and hunger soon returns. This could potentially lead to overeating and weight gain.

Low glycemic index foods affect blood sugar more slowly and steadily. These foods provide greater satiety and longer lasting, more consistent energy. That makes eating less (and maintaining weight) easier.

Spotting high GI/GL and low GI/GL foods takes practice. Luckily, there are easy rules to follow that can set you up for success.

  1. Create meals with lots of low and moderate GI/GL foods. Limit high GI/GL foods because they are high in calories and cause blood-sugar highs.
  2. Look for non-starchy veggies and fruits. Apples, berries, pears, beans, broccoli, and cauliflower are low GI/GL foods. They will provide plenty of energy over a sustained period of time due to their high fiber content.
  3. When in doubt, reach for whole grains. Oats, brown rice, barley, and whole wheat are great choices. Again, lots of natural fiber means longer lasting energy.
  4. Avoid packaged and processed foods that are low in protein, fiber and fats. These types of foods are typically high in simple carbohydrates while low in other important macronutrients giving them higher GI/GL values.
  5. Moderation matters. Regardless of GI/GL, eat mindfully. Try your best to listen to your body and its signals. When you feel tired and need some energy, eat a healthy snack. When you are full, end your meal and get up and move.

There are lots of ways to make healthy eating choices. Being aware of how the food you eat could affect your blood sugar is just another way to maintain good nutrition and good health.

About the Author

Sydney Sprouse is a freelance science writer based out of Forest Grove, Oregon. She holds a bachelor of science in human biology from Utah State University, where she worked as an undergraduate researcher and writing fellow. Sydney is a lifelong student of science and makes it her goal to translate current scientific research as effectively as possible. She writes with particular interest in human biology, health, and nutrition.

Dieting to lose weight has become a regular pastime for many adults. But, how is that working out? Not great. Studies show that within five years, 60 percent of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets.

If no diet seems to work well over time—according to the research—why are there so many? A quick search can pull up hundreds. It’s because even if you haven’t succeeded before, attaining and maintaining a healthy weight is a noble goal. And it’s one that can pay big health dividends.

Why Diets are Popular?

Weight management is one of the world’s biggest health issues. Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. In the United States, 39.6 percent of adults are classified as obese. As of 2016, globally, 39 percent of adults were overweight and 13 percent were obese.

The reality of modern life is that most of the world’s population lives in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than the problem of being underweight. And, it’s not just about food consumption. Less than five percent of U.S. adults participate in 30 minutes of physical activity each day. And only one in three adults receives the recommended amount of physical activity each week.

What is a Diet?

A general definition of diet is “the sum of energy and nutrients obtained from foods and beverages consumed regularly by individuals.” The fact that a diet is healthy or nutritious doesn’t necessarily make it ideal for weight control. So, this article will focus only on reduced-energy diets intended to shrink bodyweight and body fat.

The most basic and long-held principle of weight loss or gain is determined by either a calorie deficit or excess. You might know this as calories in/calories out, or caloric balance. The oversimplification of the caloric balance concept has led to a call to “eat less, move more” as a solution to the worldwide obesity problem.

While the caloric balance concept is ultimately true, it isn’t that simple and doesn’t account for the composition of weight gained or lost. Numerous factors influence eating behaviors and dictate energy intake (calories taken in). In addition, there are multiple factors tied to the “calories out” side of the equation (calories burned). This article only focuses on the diet, or “calories in” side of the equation.

And there’s plenty to discuss on that side of the equation. Below, you won’t find every popular diet available today—there are too many. Instead, you’ll see analysis of the major diet types, or concepts. Don’t worry, most common diets or brands will fall under one of the classifications discussed below.

With so many major diet types, conflicting information and new fads thrown at you constantly, how do you know which diet or eating pattern is the best? Take a look at the science behind these major diet types.

Low-Carbohydrate Diets

You’ve heard it before: carbs are just the worst. That statement may be a little too over the top. But there are plenty of diets that focus on limiting carbohydrates. Low-carb diets are a broad category that’s difficult to define precisely.

But let’s try. Official U.S. government guidelines suggest an intake of 45-65 percent of calories from carbohydrates. So, let’s define a low carb diet as a carbohydrate intake of 10-40 percent of total daily calories. (Carbohydrate intakes of 10 percent or less—or about 50 grams—result in elevated blood ketone bodies and changes in energy metabolism. These very low-carb diets deserve a separate discussion. So, you’ll read about ketogenic diets in the next section.)

Their popularity might make you expect the research about low carb to be outstanding. But studies comparing the effects of low-fat diets and low-carb diets have provided mixed results. That’s especially true with studies that use a more liberal definition of low-carb diets (less than 40 percent of calories from carbs). That research has shown little difference in body weight and waist circumference when comparing low-carb to low-fat diets.

But research comparing lower carbohydrate intake (less than 20 percent of calories) has favored low-carb diets over low-fat for weight loss and improvement of health risk factors.

A recent meta-analysis looked at the effect of low-carb diets on fat mass and body weight. The diets in the analysis were categorized as either mild low-carb (about 40 percent carbs) or very low-carb (about 10 percent carbohydrates). With all low-carb diets considered, the fat loss was greater with low-carb than the control diets.

And the lower carb, the better the results. When they compared each type of low-carb diet (mild and very low), the diet with just 10 percent carbs had significant difference compared to the control. The mild did not.

But it should be noted that the absolute difference in fat loss after 12 months between either of the low-carb diets and the control diets was only 0.57-1.46 kg. This small difference in results after a year is likely not very compelling for the average dieter.

Pros:

  • Defaults to higher protein intake, which helps you feel fuller.
  • Provides flexibility with regard to fat and protein intake.
  • Does not indiscriminately prohibit foods based on fat content.

Cons:

  • Significantly limiting carbohydrates may falsely convey the message that carbohydrates are solely responsible for weight gain.
  • Limits healthy fruit, vegetable, whole grain, and legume servings in the diet.

Examples: Atkins, Dukan, Zone, South Beach diet, Stillman, Kimkins

Ketogenic Diets

If you have read anything about health and diet over the past couple of years, you’re probably familiar with the term “keto.”

The ketogenic diet (KD) is a variation of a low-carbohydrate diet, but different enough to earn a separate discussion. Unlike the rather liberal definition of low-carb diets in general, the keto diet is objectively defined by its ability to measurably elevate circulating ketone bodies or ketones. These are chemicals your body produces when it burns stored fat.

Entering this state of ketone elevation is also known as nutritional ketosis. And it’s important to distinguish it from diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). DKA can be a life-threatening condition resulting from dangerously high levels of ketones and glucose (sugar) in the blood. This combination makes your blood too acidic. That can severely impact the function of organs like the liver and kidneys. Diabetic ketoacidosis occurs primarily in Type I diabetics and in the absence of insulin.

Nutritional ketosis can result from a very low-carb diet, fasting, or if you’ve consumed too much alcohol. If you’re in ketosis, you have a higher than usual level of ketones in your blood or urine, but not high enough to cause acidosis.

Now you know the difference between DKA and dietary ketosis. So, let’s focus on how to achieve the sweet spot for dietary ketosis. Aside from completely fasting, ketosis can be attained by restricting carbohydrates to less than 50 grams per day (or about 10 percent of energy intake). The typical ketogenic diet would be:

  • 5-10 percent carbohydrates
  • 15-20 percent protein
  • 70-80 percent fat

It is important to mention that extreme carb restriction often results in unpleasant side effects at the beginning. Commonly known as the “keto flu,” many dieters experience fatigue, weakness, brain fog, headaches, irritability, and nausea. The time it takes to adapt to a keto diet is different for everybody. But after two-to-three weeks, most low-carb dieters report improved mental concentration, focus, and physical energy.

Keto advocates say the production of ketone bodies and a state of ketosis results in a unique metabolic state. It’s this state, they say, that helps keto diets do better than other diets at losing fat. But the scientific evidence for this assertion is mixed, at best.

The true test of the keto state happens when researchers match up the protein and energy intake between keto and non-keto diets. Experiments with this setup, with very few exceptions, have failed to show a fat-loss advantage with keto. This has been shown in the most controlled setting (where participants eat only what is given to them). In these strict studies, comparisons between keto and non-keto diets that have equal calories and protein have never reported significantly increased energy expenditure or greater loss of body fat with keto diets.

Two meta-analyses provided strong evidence against a metabolic advantage to near total carbohydrate restriction, like keto. The analyses included 32 studies, all of which were strictly controlled with all the food provided to the subjects. Carbohydrates ranged from one to 83 percent and dietary fat ranged from four to 84 percent of total energy. No metabolic or fat loss advantage was seen in the low-carbohydrate conditions. On the contrary, fat loss was slightly greater in the higher carb or low-fat condition.

Critics of the existing literature suggest that trials need to run longer to allow for sufficient “ketoadaptation.” This is a physical shift away from using sugar for fuel and toward an increase in fat as a primary fuel source. However, when objectively measured, the increased percentage of fat burned for fuel plateaus after about one week on a ketogenic diet. Simply put, rigorously controlled studies have shown ketoadaptation doesn’t necessarily amount to a net decrease in body fat.

If there is any advantage to keto diets for fat loss, it is potentially in the realm of appetite regulation. Even without calorie restrictions, keto has consistently resulted in body fat and/or body-weight reduction. That’s because fat and protein improve satiety, which helps keto dieters to eat fewer calories. Ketogenic diets also may increase satiety through a suppression of ghrelin production (a hormone that stimulates appetite). However, it remains unclear whether the appetite suppression is due to ketosis or other factors like increases in protein, or restriction of carbohydrates.

Pros:

  • Defaults to higher protein intake.
  • Suppresses appetite or controls hunger, even with no imposed calorie restrictions.
  • Simplifies meal planning and dietary decision-making process.

Cons:

  • Severely restricts fruit, vegetable, whole grain, and legumes, which are significant sources of fiber and nutrients in the diet.
  • Can compromise high-intensity training output.
  • Has not shown superior effects on body composition compared to non-keto diets when protein and calories are matched.
  • Dietary extremes make it hard to stay on or stay compliant, long term.

Intermittent Fasting

You can probably guess how intermittent fasting diets work. It’s right there in the name. Intermittent fasting is where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting. That makes dieting less about which foods you should eat, and more about when you should eat them.

There are numerous variations of intermittent fasting. But it can be divided into three major subclasses: alternate-day fasting, whole-day fasting, and time-restricted feeding.

Alternate-day fasting is the most studied variation. You may have also heard it called The Every Other Day Diet. As the name suggests, alternate day typically involves switching between 24-hours of fasting and 24-hour feeding periods. The feeding day is not restricted by calories or food types.

Studies have shown that dieters do not eat enough on feeding day to offset the prior day’s fast. Over time, this leads to a calorie deficit and weight loss. Research has also shown that lean body mass is well conserved with this approach. A popular variation of the alternate day diet includes a small meal (fewer than 500 calories) on fasting day rather than zero calories. This variation may slow weight loss slightly, but seems to help further preserve lean body mass and improve compliance.

Whole-day fasting typically involves one or two 24-hour fasting periods throughout the week of otherwise normal eating. Like alternate day, variations to whole day include no-food fast days or those with 500-600 calories. Whole-day fasting has been shown to be as effective as daily calorie restriction for losing body weight and fat. (This was shown over a period of three to six months of similar weekly calorie deficit.)

Time-restricted feeding does just that—limiting the time you eat to several hours a day. Generally, that means a fasting period of 16-20 hours and four to eight hours of unrestricted eating. Until recently, little research has been done on these diets. Two recent studies using 20/4 and 16/8 fasting and feeding schedules in active individuals showed promise. They found the time restrictions lowered body fat while maintaining lean-body mass—compared to normal diet controls.

The largest review of intermittent fasting research found very similar results when comparing the effects of intermittent fasting to continuous calorie restriction. Body-composition change and other positive outcomes between the two diets were considered equivalent. However, intermittent fasting was considered superior at suppressing hunger.

Pros:

  • All three forms of intermittent fasting have relatively strong evidence for performing equally or better than daily caloric restriction for improving body composition.
  • Intermittent fasting diets have unrestricted eating cycles and precise calorie counting isn’t needed.
  • Time-restricted feeding—combined with training—has emerging evidence for fat loss while maintaining strength.

Cons:

  • Unhealthy food choices and excess calories can become part of the unrestricted feeding periods.
  • If optimal athletic performance is a concern, intermittent fasting requires caution and careful planning.
  • Extra considerations may be necessary with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes.

Examples: Every Other Day Diet, The 5:2 Diet

Low-Fat Diets

Low-fat diets typically provide 20–35 percent of calories from fat. This range is based on the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR) for adults set by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine.

Since the 1950s, health professionals have promoted eating less fat to improve public health. Updated dietary guidelines have maintained these recommendations, and major health organizations—like the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association—support these guidelines. And, a strong base of scientific evidence supports low-to-moderate fat intake for health benefits.

Research has consistently shown that reducing fat intake below normal levels is helpful. It can lead to moderate, but consistent, weight loss, reduction in body fat, and decreased waist circumference. However, over the long-term, lower fat diets have not consistently resulted in greater weight loss than simply reducing overall calories.

The average adult in the U.S. consumes only 33 percent of their calories from fat. So, simply reducing fat intake slightly won’t likely be an effective strategy for most people eating a typical diet.

What about a more drastic reduction in fat? Getting only 10-20 percent of your calories from fat is considered a very low-fat diet. Limited amounts of research exist on diets that fit this profile. But the diets have consistently shown positive effects on weight loss and health.

Results change when very low-fat diets were compared with other diets of equal calorie intake. These studies analyzed body composition and showed no significant difference in body-fat reduction. Also, these very low-fat diets are difficult to maintain long-term. And studies that have instructed subjects to consume fat at 10-20 percent have revealed actual intakes around 26 percent.

Pros:

  • Low-fat diets have the support of major health organizations. That’s because they have a large base of scientific evidence supporting their health effects.
  • They allow flexibility with protein and carbohydrate intake.
  • Does not indiscriminately vilify foods based on carbohydrate content.

Cons:

  • May falsely convey the message that dietary fat is solely responsible for excess body fat.
  • Increased intakes of carbohydrates often include unhealthy sugar and increased processed foods.
  • Very low-fat diets are hard to maintain and lack enough solid evidence on body composition comparisons.

Examples: Lowfat: Volumetrics, DASH  Very low-fat: Ornish, Pritikin

Meal Replacements and Low-Calorie Diets

A meal replacement diet is just what it sounds like. Meal replacement programs typically provide between 800 and 1,200 calories per day. That’s why they’re often called low-calorie diets.

These diets usually require substituting one or two meals per day, with an additional healthy, low-calorie meal. There are considerable variations between programs, but the goal is the same. You replace your regular meals with low-calorie shakes and snacks to reduce overall energy intake. This beneficial calorie imbalance results in weight loss.

Most meal replacement programs suggest replacing two meals per day initially. That starts dieters off with more rapid weight loss. Then they transition to one replacement per day as a maintenance routine. Many scientific trials have supported the feasibility of this strategy. But it’s usually a relatively short-term fix. So, long-term success also depends on improved dietary habits and lifestyle modifications.

Before swapping out your ordinary food for packaged shakes, snacks, and soups, there are a few things to consider about the quality of the products. They should provide a balance of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats), just like in a healthy meal.

Protein quantity and quality should be a primary concern. Aim for enough to provide the minimum daily recommended protein intake when added to your regular meal(s). A protein intake of 15-25 percent of total calories is generally accepted as safe in normally healthy adults. This would equate to 45-75 grams of protein on a 1,200-calorie-per-day diet.

The quality of the protein is also important. So, most meal-replacement shakes use dairy, soy, egg, or a mixture of plant proteins. This ensures the shake contains adequate levels of all the essential amino acids. A sufficient dosage of varied, high-quality protein will help conserve lean body mass (muscles and organs) during weight loss. For more information on protein, check out this page.

The amounts of carbohydrate and fat will vary significantly between different replacement products. Even though their specific dosages are less important than the protein, they’re still worth noting. The average adult already struggles to get the recommended intake of fiber (25-30 grams). So, the products should contain a beneficial amount of soluble and insoluble fiber.

The addition of some fat helps with satiety and improves the absorption of certain nutrients.

And, because you’re replacing meals, it’s important your meal replacement contains a mixture of vitamins and minerals. This helps account for nutrients in the food you replace. If not, a daily multivitamin can help you meet daily minimum recommendations.

The safest and most effective meal replacements contain an appropriate balance of micro- and macronutrients. That means adequate level of quality protein, low-to-moderate carbohydrate content (with significant amounts of fiber), some healthy fat, and a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals.

Pros:

  • The diets involve premade products that eliminate or minimize the need for cooking and planning.
  • Can help break snacking and other mindless eating patterns.
  • Meal replacement products can be found in just about every supermarket health-food aisle and pharmacy.

Cons:

  • Lack of variety can affect compliance and long-term adherence.
  • There is high variation in the quality of processed foods.

Examples: Slim Fast, USANA RESET, Medifast, Body for Life, Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig

Very Low-Calorie Diets

Very low-calorie diets are indeed very restrictive. They typically provide only 400–800 calories per day. Because of the extreme calorie restriction, they’re rarely the first treatment plan for weight loss.

These diets are typically commercially prepared liquids, although some plans include soups and bars. The purpose of the diet is to induce rapid weight loss (1.0–2.5 kg/week or 2–5 pounds per week) while preserving as much lean mass as possible. Very low-calorie diets are generally used in situations of extreme obesity and require medical supervision.

On this type of diet, all regular food consumption is replaced. But theses diets shouldn’t be confused with meal replacement products, which typically replace one or two meals per day. The replacements in very low-calorie diets are fortified with the full spectrum of essential micronutrients and appropriate levels of macronutrients. The macronutrient content is approximately:

  • Protein: 70-100 grams per day
  • Fat: 15 grams per day
  • Carbohydrates: 30-80 grams per day.

Dieters using these programs report weight loss that’s 75 percent fat and 15 percent lean mass. Resistance training can help preserve muscle during a very low-calorie diet, especially in untrained obese subjects.

In obese populations, aggressive caloric restriction is a potentially powerful intervention. The greater initial weight loss is associated with greater long-term success in weight-loss maintenance. (That shows the importance of a strong start for dieters.) But some research has found these diets don’t result in greater long-term (one year or more) weight loss than diets of 800-1,200 calories per day.

Although very low-calorie consumption can be the best suited for certain situations, it should be done with professional assistance. Poor quality protein and inadequate medical supervision can lead to disastrous results. Possible side effects include excessive loss of lean mass, cold intolerance, fatigue, headache, dizziness, muscle cramps, and constipation. Hair loss has also been noted as a common complaint.

Pros:

  • Can induce rapid weight loss (1.0–2.5 kg/week or 2–5 pounds per week).
  • The diets generally involve premade products that eliminate or minimize the need for cooking and planning.

Cons:

  • Very low-calorie diets have a higher risk for more severe side-effects, but don’t necessary outperform low-calorie diets in the long-term.
  • Should be done under the supervision of a medical professional.
  • Very low-calorie diets have limited relevance to healthy and athletic people.

Examples: Optifast, KicStart, Optislim, Proslim

And the Winner Is?

If you are uncertain or confused about which diet or diet type is best for weight loss, that’s OK. Because there isn’t really a winner.

The various diet subtypes are wide-ranging in what and how much you can eat. Each type carries varying degrees of supporting data, and unfounded claims. In the end, though, long-term diet studies don’t support a significant difference between diet types. When calorie count is equal, the ability to reduce body fat is pretty much equal, too.

Each diet type has potentially unique means by which they can achieve the intended objective (i.e., improving satiety, ease of compliance, reducing hunger, etc.). But there’s a common thread that runs through all of the diets. And it’s a sustained reduction in calories eaten relative to calories burned. Diets may get there in different ways, but they’re all ultimately based on energy balance.

What Diet Should You Choose?

It comes down to what works for you. There are numerous subtypes that fall under the major diet categories above. But most diets focused on fat loss work the same—through calorie deficits. With adequate protein levels, it makes little difference whether the calorie deficit is due to a reduction in fat, carbs, or improved portion control. It also seems to make little difference whether you reduce calories daily and consistently, or by alternating fasting and unrestricted days over the course of a week.

The long-term success of the diet depends upon how well you can stick to it over time. Your chance of success is significantly better if you choose a diet with these four things:

  • Fits your general food preferences
  • Controls your hunger
  • Supports your activity level
  • Fits your lifestyle

If you need to lose weight, choose a diet that works for you, focus on health, and sticking to it. Even modest weight loss of five to 10 percent of your total body weight, can result in health benefits. These include improvements in blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugars.

You may need to purchase some new clothes, but that’s a side effect you will likely be fine with.

Characteristics of the Major Diet Subtypes

Diet Composition Strengths Limitations
Low-carbohydrate diets (LCD) 50–150 g carbs, or up to 40% of kcals from carbs Defaults to higher protein intake, which helps you feel fuller.

Provides flexibility with regard to fat and protein intake.

Does not indiscriminately prohibit foods based on fat content.

Significantly limiting carbohydrates may falsely convey the message that carbohydrates are solely responsible for weight gain.

Limits healthy fruit, vegetable, whole grain, and legume servings in the diet.

Ketogenic diets (KD) 5-10% (less than 50 grams) carbohydrates

15-20% protein

70-80% fat

Defaults to higher protein intake.

Suppresses appetite or controls hunger, even with no imposed calorie restrictions.

Simplifies meal planning and dietary decision-making process.

Severely restricts fruit, vegetable, whole grain, and legumes, which are significant sources of fiber and nutrients in the diet.

Can compromise high-intensity training output.

Has not shown superior effects on body composition compared to non-keto diets when protein and calories are matched.

Dietary extremes make it hard to stay on or stay compliant, long term.

Low-fat diets (LFD) and very low-fat diets (VLFD) LFD: 25–30% fat

VLFD: 10–20% fat

Low-fat diets have the support of the major health organizations. That’s because they have a large base of scientific evidence supporting their health effects.

They allow flexibility with protein and carbohydrate intake.

Does not indiscriminately vilify foods based on carbohydrate content.

Upper limits of fat allowance may falsely convey the message that dietary fat is solely responsible for excess body fat.

Increased intakes of carbohydrates often include unhealthy sugar and increased processed foods.

Very low-fat diets are hard to maintain and lack enough solid evidence on body composition comparisons.

Intermittent Fasting (IF) Alternate-day fasting (ADF): alternating 24-hour fast, 24-hour feed.

Whole-day fasting (WDF): 1–2 complete days of fasting per week.

Time-restricted feeding (TRF): 16–20-hour fast, 4–8-hour feed, daily.

All three forms of intermittent fasting have relatively strong evidence for performing equally or better than daily caloric restriction for improving body composition.

Intermittent fasting diets have unrestricted eating cycles and precise calorie counting isn’t needed.

Time-restricted feeding combined with training has emerging evidence for fat loss while maintaining strength.

Unhealthy food choices and excess calories can become part of the unrestricted feeding periods.

If optimal athletic performance is a concern, intermittent fasting requires caution and careful planning.

Extra considerations may be necessary with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes.

Low-Calorie Diets (LCD) with

Meal Replacements

Balanced macronutrients –

800-1,500 kilocalories (Kcal) per day

The diets involve premade products that eliminate or minimize the need for cooking and planning.

Can help break snacking and other mindless eating patterns.

Meal replacement products can be found in just about every supermarket health-food aisle and pharmacy.

Lack of variety can affect compliance and long-term adherence.

There is high variation in the quality of processed foods.

Very Low-Calorie Diets (VLCD) VLCD: 400–800 kcal/day Can induce rapid weight loss (1.0–2.5 kg/week or 2–5 pounds per week).

The diets generally involve premade products that eliminate or minimize the need for cooking and planning.

Very low-calorie diets have a higher risk for more severe side-effects, but don’t necessary outperform low calorie diets in the long-term.

Should be done under the supervision of a medical professional.

Very low-calorie diets have limited relevance to healthy and athletic people.

References

List of diets – Wikipedia. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_diets

(2018, March 23). Trends in Obesity and Severe Obesity … – The JAMA Network. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2676543

(2017, October 13). Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth – CDC. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db288.htm

(n.d.). Clinical Guidelines – National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute – NIH. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/guidelines/ob_gdlns.pdf

(n.d.). Dietary Guidelines – Center for Nutrition …. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://www.cnpp.usda.gov/dietary-guidelines

(2011, November 8). Healthy People 2010 – CDC. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/healthy_people/hp2010.htm

(n.d.). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: diets … – NCBI – NIH. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17469900

(2011, August 9). Does dieting make you fat? A twin study. – NCBI – NIH. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21829159

(2018, February 16). Obesity and overweight – World Health Organization. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight

United States Census Bureau. The 2012 Statistical Abstract. Health & Nutrition: Food Consumption and Nutrition. Table 217. Per Capita Consumption of Major Food Commodities: 1980 to 2009.

Meal Replacements and Low-Calorie Diets

Low-Fat Diets

Low-Carbohydrate Diets

Ketogenic Diets

Intermittent Fasting

Conclusion

Long-term weight loss maintenance for obesity: a multidisciplinary approach (Feb 2016)

“WILL YOU SMELL THIS?” You’ve probably had experience with this question before. And if you haven’t been the one asking, you’ve definitely been on the receiving end.

With larger-than-life refrigerators, it can be easy to forget what’s hiding in the back of yours. And as the days on your calendar tick by, the expiration dates on your questionable food items draw near.

But expired foods are only the most obvious and easily avoidable culprits when it comes to proper food safety and preventing food poisoning. There’s many more potential pitfalls, though. Making mistakes when preparing, handling, and cooking food can leave you spending your evening on the bathroom floor.

Food Poisoning: Bad Bug Basics

Improper food safety can lead to food poisoning or foodborne illness. These issues are the result of eating contaminated foods. Contamination can occur when your food is exposed to certain bacteria, viruses, parasites, and/or chemicals, and not properly handled or treated.

You’ll hear about safe food handling below. First, let’s talk about three of the most common bacterial contaminants: Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli. Take a closer look at these bacteria, how they might come in contact with your food, and how to protect yourself.

Salmonella

The Centers for Disease Control in the U.S., estimates that over one million Americans suffer from Salmonella infection each year. Tens of thousands are hospitalized. Young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable when they come into contact with Salmonella. Food is the source of nearly all Salmonella infections.

Food sources for Salmonella are contaminated:

Salmonella is often found in intestines, and therefore, the feces of animals—especially reptiles. Since fecal matter often contaminates the living environment of the animal (e.g., a chicken coop), the entire outer surface of the animal can become contaminated. This is how eggs and chicken meat can get infected.

If you come into contact with Salmonella unknowingly, you may experience symptoms including fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain or discomfort. These symptoms can last as long as a week—a painful experience for anyone.

Take precautions to protect yourself from illness by Salmonella. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling animals. Cook your meat and eggs thoroughly to ensure the bacteria is destroyed (more on temperatures later). Enjoy pasteurized products when available, as this process kills the Salmonella bacteria.

Campylobacter

These bad bacteria affect over one million people in the U.S., every year—and even more worldwide. Again, young children, older folks, and those with weakened immune systems are more vulnerable to severe illness after Campylobacter infection.

The organs of animals (e.g., intestines and liver) are the most common home for Campylobacter bacteria. When animals are slaughtered for meat, the bacteria can spread, infecting more widely consumed parts of the animal. Campylobacter can also be spread through fecal matter touching other parts of the animal, nearby produce, or water sources.

Symptoms of a Campylobacter infection include fever, abdominal cramping, vomiting, and diarrhea (often bloody). These symptoms can last for only a couple of days to well over a week.

Take care to avoid Campylobacter infection by cooking meat thoroughly—especially poultry—to safe minimum temperatures. For poultry, the safe minimum temperature is 165 degrees Fahrenheit or 74 degrees Celsius.

E. coli

There are many harmless strains of E. coli … and then there are the few that can make you quite sick. The harmful strains can be found in animals—mainly cows, sheep, and goats. The bacteria are easily passed from these animals to their environment. This can contaminate the animals’ outer bodies and potentially their water sources. These contaminated water sources can also spread E. coli (or other bacteria) to vegetables. That happens when water is infected by animals and used to irrigate vegetable crops.

Symptoms of E. coli infection include vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea (often bloody). An E. coli infection can escalate into a more alarming condition known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). This can affect your red blood cells and, subsequently, your kidneys. If HUS develops, medical attention is necessary.

You can take easy and proper precautions to protect yourself from E. coli infection. It can be avoided by routinely washing your hands (before food preparation; after using the bathroom or changing an infant’s diaper; and when you’ve touched cows, sheep, goats or their environment). Cooking beef and other meats properly also helps. And avoiding unpasteurized milk and cheeses will help protect you from E. coli.

Simple Safety Steps

You might have noticed a theme to the safety steps touched on above. There are four key steps as you buy, prepare, handle, store, and cook your food. They are: clean, separate, cook, and chill.

  1. Clean

Above, you read about the importance of washing your hands. In addition, don’t forget the surfaces on which you handle food, and the containers you use to store it. This is especially true of animal-based products like meats and cheeses.

Keeping your hands and surfaces clean is also a time issue. Make sure that any time you touch raw meat you wash your hands immediately. The same goes for surfaces and other kitchen utensils used—clean them right after use. Bacteria can live on these surfaces for some time. Without quick and proper washing, your kitchen (and hands) can become a bacterial breeding ground.

  1. Separate

Once your hands and surfaces have been washed, it’s still possible for germs and harmful bacteria to spread. Food separation is what keeps cross contamination from occurring.

Keep animal-free products separate from animal-based products. That means fruits and vegetables are handled separately (and with separate utensils) from meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs.

Food separation starts at the grocery store. When you’re shopping, bag meats and other animal products separately from other food items. Grocery baggers usually take care of this on their own, but an extra watchful eye won’t hurt.

Once you’re home and preparing the food, use separate utensils (knives, spatulas, etc.) for animal-based products. The same goes for food storage. Store meat and other animal products separate from other food. This is especially important if the meat is raw.

  1. Cook

Bacteria feel especially at-home in your food between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, 4 to 60 degrees Celsius. This temperature range is when bacteria can most easily multiply. To keep your food safe, make sure you’re heating well above this range. Not sure what the appropriate temperature is? Check out the table below before you cook your next meal.

Meal or Food Product Minimum Internal Temperature
deg F deg C
Beef, pork, veal, & lamb (bone-in) 145 63
Ham 145 63
Seafood 145 63
Minced fish (fishcakes) 158 70
De-boned, ground, or minced meats 160 71
Eggs 160 71
All poultry 165 74
Leftovers 165 74
Casseroles 165 74
Stuffing (inside meat) 167 75

Often when eating in large parties, it’s typical to dish up your plate from a common pot and sit down to eat. It’s important to remember that part of food safety is keeping cooked food hot until it’s stored in the refrigerator. Ensure your pots of food are held at 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius) or more before sitting down to enjoy your meal.

  1. Chill

Bacteria can grow in your food if it’s not properly chilled within two hours of preparing or cooking. So, it’s important to store your foods properly—and quickly. The advice to let foods cool before placing them in the fridge is a myth. Don’t wait to get foods into refrigeration.

Once you’re done eating, make sure that your food is stored separately (as appropriate; see above), and placed in the refrigerator or freezer within the two-hour window. Breaking up extra-large portions into smaller containers will also help ensure your food is chilled quickly.

What about the reverse? A common misconception is that meat and other food can be safely thawed on the counter at room temperature. This is wrong. It’s unsafe! Room temperature is an inviting range for bacteria to thrive. Thaw frozen meats and other foods well ahead of time by moving it into the refrigerator. If you’re really in a hurry, consider a bowl of cold water or the microwave for a quicker thaw.

Final Food For Thought

Now you’re ready to head into the kitchen. You’ve tossed out expired or questionable food items. You’ve learned about foodborne pathogens to avoid. And you’re armed with food safety knowledge. But before you get into gourmet mode, let’s review some simple and helpful tips to keep you healthy in the kitchen:

  • Thoroughly clean and wash all fruits and vegetables. They can be contaminated before they even reach your home, either during harvesting or shipping.
  • Consider buying separate cutting boards for produce and meat. Some retailers sell a package of multiple cutting boards of different colors or with images of the board’s appropriate use etched into each one.
  • Invest in a food thermometer. Armed with the minimum internal temperature chart above, you’ll know when your favorite foods are ready to eat.
  • When buying meat at the store, wrap it in a plastic produce bag after receiving it from the butcher. That way if your purchases wind up in the same bag, there’s already a secondary barrier in place.
  • Wash as you go. Cleaning up after yourself while cooking makes the post-meal cleanse faster. It will also keep you from inadvertently cross-contaminating other surfaces or utensils.

Bon Appetit

Time to cook! Know that you have the knowledge, and now you just need the inspiration. Check some healthy recipes to spark your kitchen creativity. Happy cooking!

About the Author

Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.

A whiff of something enticing hits you and you immediately wonder what it is. You have to identify the smell. Before you know it, the scent has started a tango between your brain and your stomach. When you finally walk by a burger joint, pastry shop, or a place serving one of your favorites, it’s hard to turn off the craving.

This scene happens to everyone, even if your tummy is full. That’s because everybody has strong connections to different foods. It’s part of everyday life in a world full of potential food addictions. Yes, they’re real, and food addictions are hard to break.

But how, exactly, do you know when you’re addicted to a food or beverage? The answers are below. You’ll find out how your tastiest choices consistently register in your memory and what causes food addiction. With that brings the usual internal battles like how to pace or limit yourself in the face of your delicious addictions. You’ll find tips for accomplishing that tough task, too.

What is Food Addiction?

You have cravings for a variety of foods. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s been scientifically shown that food addiction is an everyday issue some people encounter. So, if you’re dealing with it, you aren’t alone.

The cause of food addiction might seem like it starts in your rumbling stomach. But food addiction actually begins in your brain. That’s because it realizes that foods or drinks replete in fat, sugar, or salt are among the most rewarding and pleasurable for certain parts of your brain.

Studies have related the chemicals released in the brain when you eat certain foods to those that are released in the presence of an addictive drug. The substance most responsible for this is called dopamine.

That fact makes dopamine arguably one of the most impactful and crucial chemicals in your body. It’s a messenger between cells in your brain (also known as a neurotransmitter). And dopamine plays a direct role in how you move around, learn, and digest information—and digest foods, too. This brain chemical is what gets you up and going and helps you stay determined to tackle whatever you have in front of you.

But it also plays a key role in food addiction and cravings. Here’s how dopamine works with food cravings and addiction: Soon after you eat certain foods, this chemical messenger in your brain arrives. Dopamine increases stimulation of your brain’s reward centers. And your brain wants to trigger this reaction again and again. That’s because your brain craves these pleasurable, rewarding experiences. And certain foods are one way for your brain to get its reward fix.

Humans aren’t alone in this. In studies where rats were fed diets rich in junk food and unhealthy snacks, the subjects adopted similar behavior to that of habitual drug users. The rats wanted more food that did them no good nutritionally in order to feel eased by the dopamine rush. The rats even refused to dine on more healthy options once they got used to the foods rich in sugar, fats, salt, and carbs. The 2009 study showed rats even went as far as starving in order to wait for the junk food that might never come.

That’s a startling example. So, what are the traditional trigger foods and drinks that can influence this process in your brain? Unfortunately, there are a lot.

What are Among the Most Addictive Foods?

They’re usually the best tasting ones. And that’s maddening. A food addiction researcher gave her rundown in a recent study. The results showed that processed foods higher in fat and glycemic load were “most frequently associated with addictive-like eating behaviors.” Here’s a few of the most addictive foods:

  • Pizza: Of course, this delicious combination of carbs, salt, and fat is near the top of the list. You’ve probably asked yourself: “How many slices should I eat?” The answer, is one, if any. But pizza is hard to resist. That’s bad, because it’s usually filled with processed ingredients. It also has more fat per bite than most healthy meals. Combine that with the salt and you have a perfect recipe for a flood of dopamine that sets you down a path toward another slice. You know you don’t need it, but your brain wants it.
  • Sweet treats: Chocolate, cookies, cake, and ice cream are all chock-full of sugar and fat that can easily convince your brain that you need more. Offsetting the savory of your meal with a sweet dessert is common. But it isn’t a healthy choice. Those sugars can piggyback an unhealthy main course decision and lead you to overeat when you don’t need to. And you’ll get a lot of extra calories, fat, and sugar, too.
  • Fried foods: From what you already know, there’s no surprise here. French fries and potato chips are salty and usually baked or fried in oils that don’t do your body or brain much good. As out-of-this-world good as fried delicacies can be, at times, they’re the perfect recipe for unhealthy and addictive decision making.

As is the case with everything in life, moderation is key. If you’re going to have a glass of red wine at dinner for heart health, have one, not four. If you’re going to have a cheat day once a week, try and stick to it. Don’t weave your way through the kitchen to plunder your snack drawer every day. Also: It might be wise to avoid having a snack drawer at all.

What About Soda?

Soft drinks are just as addictive as fatty, salty foods. And consumption of soda has a direct correlation to negative nutritional and health effects, as well as weight gain. One study in 2007 found a clear link between soft drink intake and increased energy intake—in other words, getting more calories in a day. Drinking soda was also associated with lower intake of calcium and other nutrients. Soda drinkers are also at a higher risk for medical issues down the road.

So why is soda so addictive? Well, it’s not that hard to decipher. Non-diet soft drinks are filled with a serious amount of sugar. And they sometimes pair the sweet with high levels of caffeine.

You might counter with, “What about diet soda?” Turns out research shows that diet soft drinks can also contribute to weight gain. Artificial sweeteners are designed to create similar reactions in the brain as normal sugar. And one study suggests those who regularly take in artificial sweeteners may crave more sweets, choose sweet food over nutritious food, and find healthier options like fruit less appealing. This can lead to weight gain.

Overcoming Food Addiction

This is the hard part. But you don’t need to feel guilty for a sudden hankering for food or soda. It happens to everyone. And beating yourself up about these cravings isn’t a productive way to deal with food addictions. Understanding what causes these addictions is the first step, but there are more things you can and need to do.

Start by planning ahead to figure out how to manage your intake. The expert advice is pretty simple: Get ahead of these urges. That means dumping your snack drawer, and stocking your house with healthier options.

Luckily, you can also trick your cravings. If you’re craving a sweet, go the route of natural sugar and have fruit. If you’re looking for something more filling, plan out a meal you know will satisfy—starting with dietary fiber and protein is a good start.

A meal-prep plan for those dealing with food addiction entails spacing out meals throughout the day—anywhere from four to five hours between eating. You should include fresh fruit and vegetables in as many of the snacks and meals as possible.

You can break the cycle of food addiction, though. It takes daily focus, determination, and planning. An ideal daily routine could go something like:

  1. A strong start: Healthy foods might not have the same amount of clout in your memory bank as the sort of foods that set you back in your fight against food addiction. But there are still good substitutes. For example, breakfast foods to put on your list include eggs, granola, bananas and strawberries. Sure, it might take a little longer to prep, but that sounds like a tasty start instead of a Pop Tart or cinnamon roll.
  2. Include the fresh stuff: Find the time for fruit and veggies. Getting in the habit of including vegetables and fruit in at least two meals a day is a good start. That will help you turn to fruits and veggies on a regular basis. Making this a habit will help in your fight against unhealthy food addictions.
  3. Think ahead: Understand your cravings and try to plan ahead. If you know you love fried foods, find a healthier option—maybe roasted sweet potatoes instead of French fries—and have it ready to go. Making a healthy choice more convenient can help you short-circuit your cravings before they take over.
  4. Learn to trick your brain: Dopamine can be released by foods that benefit your stomach and overall health in the long-term, too. In fact, healthy food like spinach, watermelon, avocados, and even tofu, can offer rewarding neurological responses. If you’re looking for alternatives for fatty or salty snacks, carrots and hummus work, as does peanut butter and apple slices.

Win the Battle, Because You Can

Overcoming food addiction can be a long, painful process. You have to take it meal-by-meal, and day-by-day. But there’s hope. You can do it. And your attitude is a critical part of the battle. Know you can do it. And then start taking small actions and building on them.

Bookmark this article as a reminder of the science behind food addictions, how they occur, and a step-by-step guide to overcoming them. Start by identifying triggers and then make healthy substitutions. Soon you will have the power to say no to your cravings. Because you will have discovered healthy alternatives you enjoy and you’ll also understand the dangerous path quick-fix foods can present.

Weight may be a number on a scale. But it hangs heavily over the health of many people. That’s because excess body weight can drag down many aspects of your health. So, if you’re looking to maintain a healthy weight, you aren’t alone. Weight management is one of the biggest concerns for people around the world.

Setting goals, making a plan, and using a checklist are all important ways to jumpstart your weight-management journey. But first, you need to get some information.

Take this short quiz to weigh the amount of knowledge you have about weight management. Then see the answers and share your score—and the quiz—so everyone in your life can fill up on this important information.

The brain is often talked about as the master of the body. It sends messages along the information superhighway of the central nervous system. This turns electric impulses and thoughts into action and behavior. The brain is like the Wizard of Oz: it’s the ring leader behind the curtain, directing the cognitive processes and movements of the body.

However, in recent years, scientists have found that the brain doesn’t act as independently as once believed. Careful studies show there is another major player aside from the brain. And a curious one at that. In fact, this other player isn’t a sole entity at all, but rather trillions of microscopic ones. It’s a system of trillions of bacteria and other bugs, known as your gut microbiome.

Here’s another way to look at it: Say the brain is the CEO of the company known as your body. That would make your microbiome the extensive members of the company’s staff. Having a good, connected working relationship between employees and the CEO creates success. But just like a company run with zero input from its staff, a body run solely by the brain misses out on essential messages and signals that would contribute to an ideal functioning body.

To avoid such tyranny, the body has coevolved alongside intestinal bacteria and other bugs. This makes the relationship between the microbiome and the brain an intertwined one. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership based on regular communication between the brain and microbiome. The two speak through a variety of mechanisms to maintain the health and well-being of your body. This crosstalk between the two affects hunger, digestion, and satiety, as well as your immune and mental health.

In order to appreciate how your microbiome can affect your brain, let’s gain an understanding of the microbiome. Then we’ll look at how it works together with the brain. First, let’s focus on the bacteria and other bugs. To answer: What exactly lives in your gut and why?

The Microbiome: Your Body’s Bacteria And Other Bugs

Your gut is home to trillions of little bugs known collectively as the microbiome. These microorganisms (including bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, and other bugs) make up the community that resides there.

Microbiota is often used interchangeably with microbiome. You’ll see the term microbiome used more here because it stands for much more than the bugs themselves. “Microbiome” encompasses the entire community of microorganisms along with their functionality and activity in the gut.

Many of the functionalities of your gut microbiome occur there, in your intestines. However, there are interactions between those bugs and other parts of the body that act as communication mechanisms between the microbiome and the brain. Let’s learn more about these interactions that make up the gut-brain axis.

Your Brain On Bugs—Gut-Brain Axis Basics

As mentioned before, your brain and microbiome constantly communicate. This link is often referred to as the gut-brain axis, or GBA. Communication along this line is essential to maintain homeostasis—or balance—in your gut and elsewhere. There are various routes of communication that constitute the GBA. But the most prominent is the vagus nerve. It’s involved in digestion and healthy gut immune response, among other bodily processes and reactions.

Digestion

The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that starts in the brainstem and runs down to the large intestine. This nerve covers so much ground within the body that it’s no surprise that the vagus nerve is responsible for regulating a number of internal functions. Some of these are digestion, respiratory rate, heart rate, blood pressure, some immune responses, and several internal reflexes (e.g., sneezing and swallowing).

Digestion is the first topic to chew on.

Research has shown that the gut isn’t just the site of digestion and nutrient absorption. The gut is also the mediator between its microbiome and the brain. Basically, the gut witnesses the processing of the food you consume. Then it reports relevant information from that process to the brain via the vagus nerve.

As the site of food digestion, the gut has immediate knowledge of what is being consumed. It gathers information about nutritional and energy content. The vagus nerve makes sure the brain stays up-to-date on this sensory information, like hunger cues and feelings of fullness.

This knowledge is important for the brain, so it can determine:

  1. How to drive related impulses (e.g., telling your brain your gut is full and therefore you should stop eating).
  2. How to shift your mood (e.g., if you’re hungry, your mood can become irritable).
  3. Where it is best to send energy (e.g., when you are cold, energy is sent to warm your most vital organs).

Relaying Immune Reflexes

The vagus nerve also communicates other gut events to the brain. Along with the ingested food comes allergens and other microbes that can activate normal immune responses in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Even though they are typical, healthy responses, these reactions can occasionally and temporarily get in the way of regular gut function.

Your brain needs to know about these minor inconveniences. So, this information is “sensed” by the gut and carried to the brain by the vagus nerve on the information superhighway of the gut-brain axis. The direction of information described above is referred to as an “afferent” pathway. That means messages travel away from the gut to the brain.

Gut-brain axis communication helps provide your brain—and eventually the rest of your body—with information it needs to mount and maintain a proper, healthy response. The communications from the brain to the gut are along what’s called “efferent” pathways (working in the opposite direction from the afferent pathways). They work when the efferent fibers from the brain send signals back down the vagus nerve to help maintain and support a healthy, normal immune response.

You Are What You Eat

It’s important to consider how to keep your gut and brain healthy in order to maintain quality communication between both along the gut-brain axis. The easiest way to do this is through food and nutrition. And you have at least three opportunities each day to influence what goes into your gut.

Your microbiome acts as a mediating factor between lifestyle choices—like diet—and the maintenance of health. What you eat enters your body and may alter the bacteria found in your gut. The effects of this can be positive or negative on processes like digestion. And changes to these processes can either maintain or hinder your health. Let’s take a closer look.

Diets rich in plant-based protein and fiber tend to increase the abundance of bacteria like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus. These are beneficial bacteria that tend to maintain health in your gut. Conversely, diets rich in animal-based protein and saturated fat could increase the abundance of Bacteroides and Alistipes, which are thought to be associated with cardiovascular and bowel issues.

Additionally, studies show that those who consume more vegetables and less fat tend to have a more diverse microbiome with many different beneficial bacteria represented. And those who consume a high-fat diet tend to lack bacterial diversity in the gut, which isn’t good for your digestive health.

While the community of bacteria within your gut is complex, keeping it healthy can be rather simple. Beneficial bacteria prefer to eat certain types of food that tend to get labeled as “healthy” or “healthier.” The opposite is true for bad bacteria: they prefer to eat the things you should eat in small amounts, like saturated fat. So, when you sit down to eat next, ask who you would rather feed—the good or the bad bacteria?

Here are some tips to consider:

  • Minimize your intake of saturated fats. Unsaturated fats like olive oil and avocados promote the healthier bacteria like Bifidobacteria and Saturated fats tend to increase Bacteroides, the bugs that negatively impact gut health.
  • Increase your intake of fiber-rich vegetables. These foods contain many complex starches and fiber your body can’t break down completely on its own. Instead, your body relies on the gut bacteria to break down some of the fiber. In the process, the bacteria create short-chain fatty acids that support gut health. These fiber-rich foods act like prebiotics, feeding your microbiome.
  • Consider adding probiotic foods to your diet. Probiotics support a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria to your gut. Find a tasty yogurt that you like, and keeping your gut healthy will feel like a sweet treat! If dairy isn’t your thing, you can try fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, or sourdough. And probiotic supplements are also a great way to help you find a beneficial balance of gut bacteria.

Minding Your Microbiome

Your microbiome is a complex system that’s ready to help you live your best life. It does so largely through digestive processes, but also by relaying important messages to your brain. Maintaining a happy gut keeps communication along the gut-brain axis flowing. And together, this powerful pair helps support your overall health.

About the Author

Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.

References

Agusti A, Garcia-Pardo MP, et al. (2018). “Interplay Between the Gut-Brain Axis, Obesity, and Cognitive Function”. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 12: 155.

Carabotti M, Scirocco A, et al. (2015). “The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems.” Ann Gastroenterol. 28 (2): 203-209.

Bischoff SC. (2011). “‘Gut health: a new objective in medicine?’” BMC Medicine. 9: 24.

Breit S, Kupferberg A, et al. (2018). “Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders.” Frontiers in Psychiatry. 9: 44.

Foster JA, Rinaman L, Cryan JF. (2017). “Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome.” Neurobiology of Stress. 7: 124-136.

Houghteling PD, Walker WA. (2015). “Why is initial bacterial colonization of the intestine important to the infant’s and child’s health?” J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 60 (3): 294-307.

Hsiao E. (2013). “Mind-altering Microbes: How the Microbiome Affects Brain and Behavior”. TED Lecture.

Quigley EMM. (2013). “Gut Bacteria in Health and Disease.” Gastroenterol Hepatol. 9 (9): 560-569.

Singh RK, Chang H, et al. (2017). “Influence of diet on the gut microbiome and implications for human health.” J Transl Med. 15: 73.

Young VB. (2017). “The role of the microbiome in human health and disease: an introduction for clinicians.” BMJ. 356:j831.

Your favorite foods take a wild ride after you take a bite. Picture a go-to snack and consider its journey through your digestive system. Take a ripe, juicy apple, for example. The fruit is full of nutrients for your body to use.

But how does that fruit become usable in your body? After all, your blood isn’t pumping microscopic apples through your arteries and veins. Your body is utilizing the chemical compounds that make apples crunchy and sweet.

Those compounds are extracted from your food through the digestive process. It’s the method by which your diet’s fats, sugars, proteins, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals—as well as other important nutrients—find their way out of the food you eat to power your body. Digestion also removes waste. And this process is constantly going on in your body.

From dinner plate to elimination, the food you eat takes a long trip through your digestive system. Take a look at the path your food will follow as it is digested:

Mouth >> Esophagus >> Stomach >> Small Intestine >> Large Intestine

At each step along the digestive journey, food is modified and broken down into usable pieces. By modeling this system step-by-step, you can gain a better understanding of the fate of your food after it enters your body.

Learn the Language of Digestion

Before exploring the ins and outs of the digestive system, let’s brush up on the vocabulary. Knowing the words associated with the digestive process will make learning about it a piece of cake.

  • Bolus: chewed food mixed with saliva.
  • Pharynx: throat, the space that links the mouth to the esophagus.
  • Sphincter: ring of muscle that controls passage of liquids and solids from one organ to the next.
  • Chyme: mix of broken-down food and digestive juices that leave the stomach and travel through the small intestine.
  • Villi: microscopic, finger-like projections that cover the walls of the intestine.
  • Bilirubin: pigment released as the result of red blood cell degradation.
  • Stool: waste remaining after digestion.

Mouth

Eating is by far the most enjoyable part of the digestive process. Your mouth and tongue encounter foods and beverages of all varieties, textures, and tastes. And together, they begin digestion by breaking up the food you eat into small, easy-to-swallow pieces.

You may think digestion begins the moment you take a bite. But in some case, it starts even before that. The sight, smell, or thought of food can be enough to trigger your salivary reflex. That’s why your mouth waters when you’re hungry. Saliva is also produced with the chewing motion. It moistens and lubricates food, making it easier to swallow.

Think of the apple. In the afternoon, when you need something to tide you over until the evening meal, an apple is a great choice. Just thinking of the crunchy fruit and the sweet, tangy, juice can make your mouth water.

The salivary glands in your mouth secrete saliva, which is rich in the digestive enzyme amylase. Salivary amylase breaks apart starches into two-chain sugars called maltose. This simple sugar will later be broken down further into single glucose molecules that can be used as cellular energy.

The movement of the tongue is also important in the digestive process. After food is chewed up and mixed with saliva, it’s ready to be swallowed. Your tongue molds and mashes food into a bolus and guides it to the back of your throat. As you swallow, the bolus of food is pushed through the pharynx and into the esophagus.

Digestive Tract Fact #1 – The salivary glands in your mouth secrete between one and one-and-one-half liters of saliva every day.

Esophagus

Boluses of food are shuttled from the mouth to the stomach via the esophagus. This key connector is guarded by two sphincters at the upper and lower ends. These round muscles act like purse strings that open and close as you swallow.

Each sphincter works independently. The upper esophageal sphincter ushers in boluses from the pharynx. The lower esophageal sphincter empties the contents of the esophagus into your stomach. It can also open to release gas build-up from the stomach. This causes you to belch.

The force that propels food and drink through the esophagus is called peristalsis. The smooth muscles that line the esophagus undergo regular contractions after a bolus is swallowed. The wave-like movement created by peristalsis continues throughout the digestive tract. The motion pushes food through all phases of digestion, in the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine.

Gravity can also aid in moving a meal through your esophagus. By sitting upright, the food you eat can travel swiftly and comfortably down the esophagus and into your stomach.

Digestive Tract Fact #2 – It takes only eight seconds for a bolus of food to travel from the pharynx, through the esophagus, and into the stomach.

Stomach

As you bite, chew, and swallow, boluses of food are dropped into your stomach. The stomach acts as a storage unit that accepts small packages of food over the course of a meal. A large quantity of food can be quickly stored and then digested over a long period of time.

This is remarkable because, when empty, an adult stomach has a capacity of 75 milliliters. But it can stretch and house up to one liter of food over the course of a meal. That’s over 10 times the starting capacity.

Let’s say you decide to eat more than just an apple. Instead you have yogurt, a turkey sandwich, and some carrots, too. That is a lot of food for your body to store in one sitting. Since your stomach is designed to accommodate full meals, you don’t need to worry about bursting at the seams. Your tummy will take each bite in stride, and process the full meal over the next several hours.

The stomach is a dynamic organ, too. It churns, squeezes, and grinds boluses of food and mixes them with gastric secretions. Peristalsis continues in the stomach and is the driving force for blending food with stomach acid. Stomach secretions help make nutrients available for absorption later in the small intestine.

This digestive juice is powerful hydrochloric acid. It’s strong enough to break apart tightly bound proteins into polypeptide chains (smaller chains of amino acids). It can also eliminate potentially harmful bacteria that may be present in some foods.

Since stomach acid is so potent, its production needs careful supervision. At the start of a meal, gastric function is just starting to warm up and very little stomach acid is secreted. Peristalsis gently begins stretching and squishing the stomach in preparation for incoming food.

In the middle of a meal, peristalsis and stomach acid rev up. Gastric secretions are at an all-time high mid-meal. The muscular stomach is rapidly mixing food and drink with hydrochloric acid. This ensures plenty of fluid in which to break down each bite of food. After food is liquified, it is referred to as chyme.

Peristalsis helps pump chyme into the small intestine while you eat. Once your meal is over, stomach acid secretion comes to a halt. But there may be excess acid. When too much gastric juice remains in the stomach after a meal, irritation of the stomach lining can occur. To protect itself, the stomach adjusts acid production to stay healthy and keep you comfortable.

Stomach contractions continue until all the chyme from the previous meal has entered the small intestine.

Digestive Tract Fact #3 – Stomach rumbles are produced by peristaltic contractions as they move contents through the intestinal tract. They occur during digestion and can continue two hours after the stomach has emptied.

Small Intestine

The small intestine plays the most significant role in the digestive process. And it’s anything but small. At 22 feet (seven meters) long, the small intestine’s primary role is nutrient absorption. Along those 22 feet of digestive “pipe,” several forces combine to optimize small-intestine function.

The lumen (center) of the small intestine is covered in tiny, finger-like tentacles called villi. These densely packed hairs give the mucosa (mucous membrane) of the small intestine a velvety appearance and help their function.

Think of villi like a densely packed carpeting, soaking up every usable nutrient in sight. The purpose of these villi is to increase the surface area of the small intestine. As chyme is further digested, nutrients are absorbed through the villi and transported to the blood stream. A larger surface area means more absorptive space.

Let’s go back to that apple. The fruit-and-stomach-secretion cocktail (chyme) enters the small intestine and mixes with water and other digestive juices like bile. Rhythmic stirring of chyme continues the breakdown of sugars, fats, and proteins from the apple or whatever your previous meal was.

Bile is critical in the digestion of fats into free fatty acids. Bile is composed of water, salts, acids, and lipids. It is a medium in which fats and fat-soluble vitamins can dissolve and be carried into the blood stream via the villi.

Bile also contains bilirubin, a yellow-orange pigment released by red blood cells as they break down. Your body can’t metabolize bilirubin on its own, so it relies on bacteria to help out. When the bacteria in your small intestine chow down on bilirubin, they produce a dark material called sterobilin. This by product gives stool it’s notable brown color.

You also get some help breaking down your food. Microbes in your small intestine do a lot of work to help make fatty acids available for later use. They work alongside secretions from the pancreas (called proteases) that help digest proteins. Proteases break apart complex proteins into peptide chains, then further into individual amino acids.

Now, glucose molecules, amino acids, and free fatty acids are available to be absorbed into the blood stream through the villi.

Digestive Tract Fact #4 – It takes four to five hours for the stomach to completely empty into the small intestine after a meal.

Large Intestine

At end of the journey through the small intestine, most nutrients from digested food have been absorbed. But not everything you eat is an absorbable nutrient. So, what happens to the parts of your food that your body doesn’t need? In the large intestine, undigested material, excess fluids, and mucus all combine to form stool. (There are many more colorful names for it, but stool is the preferred medical term, and what you’ll see moving forward.)

Stool is the solid waste of the digestive process. Believe it or not, your body doesn’t use every particle of food you ingest. Roughage (fiber) travels through the digestive system relatively intact. This is because the digestive enzymes produced in the body cannot break down fiber.

Your snack from earlier, the apple, is a good example of this. The compounds that make the apple skin tough and give the fruit its characteristic crunch pass right through your digestive system with very little nutrient absorption.

Undigested bits of food and fiber accumulate in the large intestine. This final stop on the digestive journey is full of pockets of tissue called haustra. They give the large intestine its puckered appearance. Haustra can stretch to accommodate large amounts of stool as it prepares to leave the body.

The exit of the large intestine and end of the digestive journey—when solid waste is eliminated—is another sphincter called the anus. But in order for stool to leave the digestive tract, it needs a little momentum.

A bowel movement is necessary for your body to expel stool from the large intestine. Very strong peristaltic contractions (the wave-like movements from earlier in the trip through the digestive tract) move stool toward the exit. This creates feelings of pressure in the region and eventually triggers the defecation reflex.

Solid waste is characteristically brown and stinky. You know that bilirubin gives stool its color, but what causes its odor?

If you guessed bacteria are involved, you’re right.

Microbes that reside in the large intestine make a meal of the leftovers from the small intestine. As they interact with stool, gas is created. The smell associated with stool comes from the gases released during the break down of solid waste by bacteria.

Digestive Tract Fact #5 – Stool can sit in the large intestine for up to 48 hours before it is expelled from the body.

Tips for Healthy Digestion

When your digestive system runs smoothly, you feel healthy and comfortable. There are simple ways to keep your tummy in tip top shape.

Let’s start with water.

Ample hydration makes the material in your intestines move easily with each wave of muscle contractions. Drinking plenty of water also helps soften the waste that lurks in your gut. When stool is eventually collected in the rectum, water makes it more comfortable to eliminate.

Fiber also eases digestion.

The complex carbohydrate is bulky and adds weight to stool. Bowel movements are easier to pass when solid waste is heavy. Fiber also absorbs water and softens stool as it travels through the digestive tract. Consider increasing your fiber intake if you notice irregularity in bowel movements. Remember, elimination of solid waste can be different for each person. One study found that normal elimination patterns varied from three times per day to three times per week.

But be careful, adding too much fiber too quickly can have unpleasant consequences. Intestinal gas build-up, bloating, and abdominal discomfort can be the result of ramping up fiber intake too quickly. So, increase the amount of fiber in your diet slowly to maintain intestinal comfort. Look for natural sources of fiber to add to your diet. These include:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Whole grain

Another way to improve digestive health is to take care of the bacteria living in your gut. These microbes do a lot to facilitate healthy digestion. By utilizing probiotics, you can help maintain a healthy balance of intestinal bacteria.

Probiotics support the numbers of helpful microorganisms in your gut. They also aid in nutrient absorption in the small intestine and help break down your food. There is growing evidence to suggest that probiotic supplementation may play a role in supporting immune health, too.

Take a closer look at the digestive system and consider the path your food takes. It is remarkable how your favorite meals are torn apart, liquefied, absorbed, and eventually eliminated by your body. And it’s all to harvest the essential nutrients you need to survive.

So, support your digestive system with lots of water and a high-fiber diet. And make its health (and yours) a priority.

About the Author

Sydney Sprouse is a freelance science writer based out of Forest Grove, Oregon. She holds a bachelor of science in human biology from Utah State University, where she worked as an undergraduate researcher and writing fellow. Sydney is a lifelong student of science and makes it her goal to translate current scientific research as effectively as possible. She writes with particular interest in human biology, health, and nutrition.

It’s often easy to practice gratitude when you’re on the receiving end of life’s greater fortunes. It could be the birth of a healthy baby, getting a promotion at work, or celebrating good health, or winning a major award. It can be trickier to feel grateful during times of hardship or the doldrums of everyday living.

But making a simple shift in attitude can better color your worldview, leading to better mental, emotional, and even physical well-being. In fact, numerous studies have shown that having a general attitude of gratefulness and appreciation improves your overall sense of well-being. Read on to learn about the benefits of gratitude to your mental and physical health. And get easy tips for integrating more gratitude into your life.

Gratitude Improves Your Mental Well-Being

One of the most impactful benefits of regularly practicing gratitude is that it provides an outlet to purge negative thoughts and emotions. Experiments tested what happened when people thought back on three good things that occurred during the day. The results showed significant improvements in subjects’ overall sense of happiness in just a few weeks.

You can do the same with some dedication. Over time, you will notice your frame of mind changes. You will feel small swells of gratitude multiple times a day, and not just in the moments you deliberately reminisce over positive daily events. Obviously, practicing gratitude alone can’t overcome clinical mental illnesses, but living a grateful lifestyle has lasting impacts on your brain and sense of happiness.

Gratitude doesn’t just help fight off down moods and negative emotions. Practicing gratitude helps reduce the number of hormones, like cortisol, your adrenal glands produce in response to psychological or physiological stress by as much as 23 percent. By perceiving life through a more appreciative lens, your parasympathetic nervous system (the calming part) is triggered. This helps combat stress hormone cortisol and perhaps increases the feel-good bonding hormone oxytocin.

Additionally, studies have shown that recognizing your blessings—especially during times of difficulty and strife—can lower rates of post-traumatic stress and help you feel more resilient. That means that even during stressful times, you’re better able to cope.

A shift from negative to positive framing is a large part of why gratitude is so effective at improving mood. Changing your mental focus from negative thoughts and emotions allow you to interpret life as being filled with positive feelings, events, and ideas. Since the positive shines through, you’re able to be more optimistic that good things will be in your future. That’s because you’re more aware of all the positives that exist in your present.

Practicing gratitude also eliminates the toxic practice of comparing yourself to other people whom you might perceive as being more advantaged than you. That helps you have better self-esteem. Being happy with what you have makes it easier to avoid desiring what others have.

Another, less obvious, aspect of mental health is your relationship with others. And yes, gratitude can help improve that area of your life, too. When you’re going through life looking for positive experiences, you’re more likely to be open to new relationships in the first place. Practicing gratitude also helps you see what loved ones do for you and how they add to your life. It makes you more likely to express your appreciation to those around you.

One study found that when romantic partners feel grateful toward one another, it can increase their sense of connectivity and overall satisfaction with the relationship. Other research found that those who were more gracious were more patient and made better decisions. Both of these attributes make for better relationships.

The benefits aren’t temporary, either. Practicing a grateful mindset during a down period will also help reset your mindset, and regularly focusing on your blessings can affect your mood long term.

Gratitude Improves Physical Health

It makes sense that being grateful would positively affect your mental well-being and relationships. But multiple studies have shown that living more appreciatively can also boost your physical health.

One major cause of improved well-being? It turns out that being filled with gratitude makes you take better care of yourself. Those who make gratitude part of their everyday lifestyle have been shown to eat healthier, exercise more, and go to the doctor regularly. Similar to how being grateful increases your patience, it also replenishes your willpower and decision-making skills. So, you can say no to overeating and yes to healthier lifestyle choices.

Beyond making healthier choices, cultivating a sense of gratitude has been shown to improve heart health by positively impacting blood pressure. In another study, researchers followed heart failure patients who weren’t yet experiencing symptoms. They found that patients who regularly wrote down the things they were grateful for had healthier heart rhythms.

The physical benefits of gratitude don’t stop there, either. Gratitude has been shown to have an impact on immune functions. And people who are more thankful also tend to sleep better. Instead of lying awake, ruminating over negative thoughts, focusing on blessings soothes the nervous system. That helps you fall asleep more quickly, sleep better, and sleep for longer. Unsurprisingly, those who practice gratitude also tend to be more alert and have more energy the next day. So, the next time you’re tossing and turning, try counting the good things in your life to help you rest easier.

5 Simple Tips to Become More Thankful

If you’d like to reap the mental and physical benefits of gratitude, try incorporating thankful habits into your everyday lifestyle. Here are five ways to add gratitude to your life:

  1. Write it down. It might seem old-fashioned, but writing down expressions of gratitude helps you stay focused on the goodness at hand. Every day, try creating a gratitude journal—write down three things you’re grateful for and why. You can also send thank you notes, emails, text messages, or letters to those you’re thankful for.
  2. Set some time aside every day to reflect on things you’re thankful for. Even if you don’t take the time to write them down, thinking about or saying aloud what you appreciate will help foster a grateful attitude. This could include having your family members take turns expressing their gratitude at the dinner table, or recalling the good parts of your day while brushing your teeth at night.
  3. Be grateful for the hard times. Perhaps easier said than done, finding the silver lining in times of difficulty can help you cope. Search for a lesson, benefit, or blessing in disguise during a trial. Obstacles are an inevitable part of life, so try your best to find the bright side in everything.
  4. Meditate. Mindfully stay focused on what you have to be grateful for in the present moment and the people who deserve your gratitude. Keeping yourself in tune with the here and now will help you let go of the past and chase away anxieties about the future.
  5. Give compliments. Appreciate a friend’s sense of style? Admire a co-worker’s ability to inspire her teammates? Say so! You’ll feel better for having expressed your gratitude, and people who feel appreciated typically go the extra mile for those around them.

Fully embracing the best parts of life on a daily basis can help you maintain a positive outlook even during tough times. The more you practice looking for the bright spots, the easier it will be to find them. And in the long run, your mental and physical health will thank you for the attitude adjustment.

Hanger (a combination of hunger and anger) is a very real emotional response for some. It rears its ugly head when you’re hungry and food isn’t forthcoming. If you’ve ever experienced hanger, you know the power food has over your mood.

But the impact eating has on your attitude is about more than keeping your belly full. There are important ties between specific nutrients and mood. Those connections deserve exploration. That’s because nutritional remedies can pair well with healthy habits, self-care, professional recommendations, and lifestyle adjustment to help manage your mood.

You can design a diet that keeps you satisfied and helps your body maintain the conditions for a bright mood. And it will help you keep the hanger at bay.

The Basics of Food, Nutrients, and Mood

If you’re wondering why food is important to your mood, blame your brain—mostly. Your body’s command center deals with the demands of running your body. But it’s also pretty demanding, too.

Your brain churns through a lot of energy. It also is a bit of a hedonist—valuing pleasurable reward over almost anything. Food is the key to caloric contentment and also provides pleasure for your brain. Eating triggers the release of important brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) with ties to mood—especially endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine.

It’s not just your brain, though. The nutritional needs of your whole body can impact how you feel. Even small nutrient insufficiencies can have major consequences. A lack of some micronutrients can start a chain reaction. Enzymes (helper proteins in your body) don’t work as well without vitamins and minerals to aid their activity. When enzymes aren’t in tip-top shape, your mood—and other aspects of your health—can suffer.

That’s probably why adequate nutrition (including supplementation) has been shown in many studies and meta-analyses to support your mood. One specific double-blind experiment tested large doses of nine vitamins against a placebo. After a year, males and females both reported being more agreeable.

Science backs up the ties between food, nutrients, and mood. So, how can you use this knowledge to your advantage? What nutrients and foods should you target? The answers await in this list of mood-supporting nutrients and compounds.

Magnesium for Your Mood

Your whole body needs magnesium. That’s why it’s an essential mineral. But it goes above and beyond, acting as a helper for over 300 enzyme systems in your body. With that widespread impact, there have to be some crossovers with mood management, right?

One such connection between magnesium and mood happens in your brain (no surprise). The mineral acts as a buffer for important receptors in nerve and brain cells. This protective action helps keep these cells healthy.

Magnesium also plays a role in stress responses. It acts as a triple-pronged check on stress responses in your body:

  • In the brain, it helps maintain normal stress-hormone levels.
  • Atop the kidneys, magnesium supports the adrenal glands’ normal response to a hormone that activates cortisol and adrenaline production, which helps support healthy levels of these stress hormones.
  • In the bloodstream, it can act as a blood-brain barrier to maintain a healthy interaction between stress hormones and the brain.

To top it all off, magnesium has ties to maintaining normal, healthy serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is your master mood maintainer and is tied to feelings of happiness.

Find magnesium in green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, meats, and milk. Even some hard water contains variable amounts of this mineral.

Zinc is an Amazing Mood Metal

Like magnesium, zinc is a helper in over 300 enzymes. But the biggest stock of zinc is in your brain’s hippocampus—a major mood center.

Zinc also aids in brain health through its role in cell growth, differentiation, and neural function. It participates in fine-tuning stress responses in your brain and body. Zinc is even important to cell signaling and various brain chemicals.

Studies about memory, learning, and mood have found links between optimal zinc levels and supporting brain health and normal mood maintenance. Don’t miss out on this mineral. You can find zinc in meat, liver, eggs, oysters, and seafood.

In the Mood for B Vitamins

If you get overwhelmed trying to understand the differences between all the B vitamins, there’s a solution. Take a variety of these eight essential vitamins. It won’t help you keep them straight, but many of the B vitamins have been shown to support your mood. So, at least you’ll feel OK about it.

B vitamins are critical in the production of brain chemicals that impact your mood—particularly dopamine and serotonin. Both of those brain chemicals have ties to happiness and pleasure. If you don’t have enough B vitamins (especially B6 and B12) to make adequate amounts of the neurotransmitters, you can start to feel it.

Several B vitamins also help keep your nerves healthy. That’s important for good communication, which plays a role in your overall state of mind. Thiamin (B1) has also been show in studies to support mood.

The B vitamins are scattered throughout the dietary landscape. Find thiamin in brown rice and squash. Riboflavin is in dairy products, spinach, almonds, and broccoli. Beans, bananas, potatoes, meat, and nuts contain vitamin B6. For folate, turn to legumes, asparagus, fortified breakfast cereals, and spinach. And B12 is abundant in seafood, beef, fish, and eggs.

Omega-3s: In Mood, Fat is Your Friend

Your brain is about 60 percent fat. It’s just a fact, because fat—especially essential fatty acids like omega-3s—is what your brain is mainly made out of. And since your brain is largely responsible for your mood, fat has ties to how you feel.

The fatty makeup of your central nervous system is crucial to proper signaling. Omega-3s make up about 20 percent of your brain cell membranes and your nervous system is also composed of a lot of fat. So, keeping those membranes stocked with essential fatty acids help maintain healthy membranes, which helps promote healthy signaling and support a balanced mood.

Your body can’t make enough of the important omega-3s (DHA and EPA) you need. That’s why they’re so important. You’ll have to turn to your diet. Adding more fatty, cold-water fish (think mackerel, salmon, herring, and anchovies) to your meals is a great way to get more omega-3 DHA and EPA.

Caffeine Can Elevate More Than Energy

You don’t want to talk to some people before they’ve had their morning coffee. Blame caffeine.

The world’s most popular natural stimulant has big effects on energy and mood. It revs up the body’s central nervous system and has been doing so for centuries all around the world. The popularity and longevity of this mood-affecting substance says a lot about the power and effectiveness of caffeine. But how does it actually work?

The long explanation involves a lot of brain chemicals and receptors. The short answer is that caffeine supercharges your brain and nervous system. It supports your naturally stimulating chemicals, which helps you stay alert and feeling better about the day.

Make sure to manage your caffeine intake so it doesn’t overstimulate anxieties or throw your sleep schedule out of whack. You can find caffeine in coffee, green and black tea, and chocolate.

Dark Chocolate, Lighter Moods

Reaching for chocolate when you feel down is natural. That’s because it’s the king of mood foods. And turning to dark chocolate has well-studied mood benefits, and is much better for you than milk chocolate.

The more cacao (or cocoa) in the chocolate, the more mood-supporting compounds you’ll find. Anandamide is one. This fatty acid acts as a neurotransmitter that can affect mood. Another, phenylethylamine, is an organic compound that acts like a mood-supporting brain and nervous system chemical.

Be careful with this semi-sweet treat. You’ll still get sugar and lots of fat. But darker chocolate (the higher the percent of cacao or cocoa, the darker the product) has a better balance of beneficial and unhealthy components.

Nutrients and Mood: Other Emerging Compounds

Researchers are constantly evaluating new connections between specific nutrients and mood. They’re picking out different plant compounds found in the diet and throughout world history to explore how they support a healthy, normal mood.

Here’s just a few compounds that have been around for a long time, but have new, emerging research about mood maintenance:

  • Saffron: a vibrant spice made from the saffron crocus flower.
  • Ashwagandha: an important herb used as an herbal preparation in India for thousands of years.
  • Lemon Balm: a common herb in the mint family.

Feed Your Mood

Take charge of your temperament. Pack your diet with foods containing these mood-supporting nutrients. And see how diet decisions can do more than stave off the hanger monster. If you struggle fitting these nutrients in your meals, supplementation is a good alternative—especially for those who may have dietary restraints. Whether through a meal or supplementation, it’s time to give “eating your feelings” a new meaning.

Things seem to pile up, don’t they? And they seem to do so way too often. You’re plugged in, always ready to hear the ding of an email or the vibration of a text message signaling the next task to tackle. This is the new normal.

You’ve found ways to be productive. Mostly because there’s no alternative. But productivity doesn’t always equal happiness. Churning through task after task can allow stress to build up without release. And constantly being “on” can become overwhelming.

If that sounds familiar, you aren’t alone. The World Health Organization has called stress the “epidemic of the 21st century.” Research has shown that mismanaged or ignored stress can lead to serious issues.

But that doesn’t have to be your life.

Learning ways to decompress and finding stress-free moments in everyday life is important for long-term health. So how do you maneuver what’s next on the to-do list and discover ways to sneak a few necessary deep breaths?

There are plenty of avenues that have shown to be effective. And science backs them up in more ways than one. The slideshow below has eight stress management tips to help you decompress — because it’s vital to your everyday well-being.

1. Take a Break

In the moment, taking a break might seem like the last thing you want to do. You’re hardwired to power through the rigors of your responsibilities. But stopping and stepping away is crucial. That’s because even brief gaps are known to be stress-reducers.

So, lock your phone. Close your laptop. Get up from your desk. Take a walk outside. Dive into something else during your break. And “getting fresh air” isn’t just a catchphrase—taking some time outdoors is proven to help you decompress in your most needed moments.

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2. Hear the Keys: Classical Music Helps

At first, it might seem a bit odd, but listening to classical music in times of stress helps soothe the mind. The tinkling piano keys and sweeping strings may help manage stress.

An experiment in 2000 in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine measured the effects of classical music on attention, relaxation, and stress responses. Those who listened to music after stress exposure reported more relaxation.

Another study showed that those who listen to classical music had significantly lower blood pressure levels than those who did not. The calming sounds aided in stress management and led directly to what everyone seeks: a bit of tranquility.

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3. Limit Screen Time

Sounds impossible to break away from your screen, right? For most, it is. Your life is ingrained into every screen you own and operate.

It’s been shown that too much time staring at screens can lead to headaches and sleep issues. One report blames the light from backlit screens for interfering with the body’s natural ability to wind down before sleep. If your sleep is disturbed, it leads to more issues and can make it harder to deal with your everyday stressors.

Here’s a tip to help out: At night—at least two hours before bedtime—put the phone or tablet away.

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4. Exercise to Change Things Up

If you’re having a tough time managing your stress, get your brain fixated on something else. And exercise is a great escape. That could be mean time spent on the elliptical machine or playing recreational sports with friends. Running for an allotted time gives you a break and produces endorphins (helpful hormones in your brain), too.

One study found exercise can reduce short-term stresses. It also helps you decompress ahead of the normal everyday life responsibilities you have after leaving the gym or field.

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5. Talk it Out—But Listen, Too

Finding a way to clear the mind is a crucial part of everyday life. That’s because it’s a very important way to limit stress. And sometimes the best way to clear your mind is to let those stressful feelings spill out of your mouth. It’s a much better alternative than letting the stress and tension build up to unhealthy levels.

Talking it out is great, but focusing outside of yourself is important, too. Listening and helping others solve problems focuses your energy away from your stresses onto solutions. You’ll also get perspective on your life and the satisfaction of doing good. That’s why helping out a friend or loved one is a solid plan. Being a sounding board for those in your life who need a little guidance can go a long way—for you, and for them.

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6. Eat Right, Feel Great

Mom was right. Less candy, more veggies. All the sugary or fatty, carb-filled comfort foods aren’t a long-term solution. But a well-balanced diet supports a healthy immune system, stable energy levels, and more pleasant overall demeanor.

One report declares that roughly 95 percent of receptors for serotonin (a chemical tied to happiness) are found in the lining of your gut. So, feed them. Don’t skip meals and treat yourself to healthy foods.

Also, if you’re looking for ways to decompress, cut back on caffeine. Limit coffee, energy drinks, and tea. Too much caffeine can spur anxious feelings and restlessness. Staying hydrated—6-to-8 glasses of water each day—is key, too.

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7. Laugh it Up

Movies, shows, or jokes that get you chuckling go further than the initial gut-buster. That kind of joyful reaction is proven to be a positive for those battling various stresses. There’s no better way to decompress than laughing, or even smiling, for that matter.

A study showed that positive facial expressions influenced the body’s response to stress. Laughter has proven to shrink stress responses and stimulates your heart, lungs and body muscles.

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8. Chew Gum. No, Seriously

A stick of gum can make a world of difference. And not just to mask what you ate for lunch.

An intervention study examined the effects of gum and work-related stress. It found that chewing gum at work and outside the workplace reduced anxious or down feelings, fatigue, and actually put people in a better mood. How about that? There’s no data yet on also blowing bubbles.

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Start Using These Stress Management Tips

There are clearly plenty of ways to manage stress. You’ve just seen eight good ones. So, when you have those familiar stressful moments, remember that there are a number of different solutions. Bookmark this list so you have quick access to routine fixes—backed by scientific evidence—that can bring your everyday stress down a notch.