For an overwhelming segment of the population, the trauma of a breakup creates a beeline for so-called comfort foods: tubs of ice cream, pizza, cake or other sugary, processed foods. Just ask the makers of Mexican ice cream brand, Elena’s Halados who have capitalized on heart break cravings with their special edition product, ‘Adios Amor Adios’ that features flavors such as Denial, Anger, Sadness, Acceptance and Hope. But according to Ashley Gearhardt, a researcher at University of Michigan’s FAST (Food Addiction Science and Treatment) Lab, the reward mechanism that is triggered in the brain by high calorie foods during a period of stress or anxiety is short lived, and can give way to negative emotions such as depression, fatigue, regret and anger. A 2019 analysis of 15 studies across more than 45,000 participants, confirms that diet is correlated with feelings of well-being and that consumption of healthy foods such as vegetables and fruits is associated with the most profound psychological benefits following stressful periods, such as a breakup.
In November 2022, researchers from John’s Hopkins University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe neural responses to nutritional stimuli and found that stress affects how the brain responds to food, causing consumers to make sub-optimal dietary decisions during difficult periods.
It is no wonder then, that burgers and candy rank as the number one breakup foods among Americans, according to a 2023 survey conducted by USA RX. Another survey conducted by OnePoll research and Yelp Eat 24 in 2017 found that two-thirds of people have “go-to” comfort foods, with ice cream, pizza, fried foods and cake topping the list.
In ‘The Psychobiotic Revolution: Mood, Food, and the New Science of the Gut-Brain Connection,’ (2022) Scott C Anderson reveals the intricacies of the gut-brain connection, how food impacts psychological well-being and the interconnectedness of the microbiome (the trillions of bacteria that live in the gut) and stress response.
Bioactive compounds associated with a healthy diet, which includes fruits and vegetables, fatty acids and fiber, beneficially interact with a number of pathways related to inflammation, oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction associated with mental health.
Here are some of the top foods associated with improved mental health and healing following a break up, according to science.
According to ground breaking research from the University of Colorado, reported in journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, artichokes, which are high in prebiotics, have been shown to improve sleep and relieve stress by boosting levels of gut bacteria. Gut bacteria can be adversely affected by stress and can lead to gastrointestinal issues— making the discomfort caused by heart break even worse. Artichokes are also rich in potassium, magnesium, vitamins C and K, which play an important role in healthy stress response. A 2019 study reported in the International Journal of Scientific Research found that supplementing with 600mg of artichoke per day (in tablet form) is effective in the treatment of depression, and Artichoke Extract (Luteolin) has been proven to improve motivation and mood.
According to a study conducted by USA RX, chicken noodle soup is the second most popular breakup food among Americans. A survey conducted by Pacific Foods, in December 2022 confirmed these findings— 88% of those experiencing a breakup reported craving soup as a source of comfort. This prompted the Campbells Soup-owned company to launch its “Pacific Foods Broken Hearts Soup-port Kit” which contains three soups to help nurse a broken heart: Broken Heart(y) Vegetable Soup, Seeing Red Tomato Bisque and It’s Not Me, It’s You Chicken Noodle Soup.
Science confirms the healing potential of soup on the psyche of the heartbroken. A study reported in the Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that there is link between soup consumption and positive psychological associations with relationships, and reduced feelings of loneliness. Homemade soups are always the best, especially when made with a variety of vegetables and healthy proteins.
Dark chocolate (70% cocoa or more) in addition to being delicious, may be helpful in relieving anxiety, due to the presence of antioxidants and flavanols.
Research from the Nestle research center in Lausanne, Switzerland has shown that consuming 40 mg (the size of a medium-sized bar) of dark chocolate per day for two weeks can help to reduce levels of the cortisol stress hormone as well as fight-or-flight hormones known as catecholamines, and can have beneficial effects on metabolism and the activity of gut bacteria.
Fx Chocolate is a brand of handcrafted dark chocolates with functional doses of powerful nutraceuticals, like Reishi, Ashwagandha, CBD, and phytonutrients, sweetened with allulose, which is found naturally in figs, jackfruit, and raisins. Each of the five dark chocolate blends offers benefits that can help individuals get through stressful periods such as a break up.
Raw Fruits and Vegetables
Barbados-based Plant based chef and wellness gastronomy consultant, Manuela Scalini, says that “the high vibrational aspect of raw food and clean eating has a profound effect on our well-being, sleep and mood.”
A 2021 study from Edith Cowan University in Australia and published in journal Clinical Nutrition, found that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables resulted in better mental health outcomes than diets with lower consumption of vegetables and fruits.
Fruits and vegetables are packed with beneficial vitamins, minerals, fiber and high concentrations of polyphenols that have been linked to improved mental health. But cooking or processing of fruits and vegetables can reduce the availability of these micro-nutrients.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand and published in journal Frontiers of Psychology found that the top raw fruits and vegetables for mental health are dark leafy greens such as spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, bananas, apples, kiwifruit, grapefruit, other citrus fruits, fresh berries, and carrots.
Fermented foods and drinks
Trillions of gut bacteria play a major role in regulating mood and behavior. Consuming fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt, and kimchi can help to support a healthy gut microbiome. Because fermented foods and drinks have been through a lacto-fermentation process, naturally occurring good bacteria (lactobacillus) feed on starch and sugar, creating lactic acid which also unlocks B vitamins, enzymes, Omega 3 fatty acids and probiotics that help to maintain a healthy gut.
“We believe that when food is grown and created with love, our beings respond,” say Britta and Michiel Bush, the couple behind Saucha Conscious Food, a Cayman Islands-based plant-based organic commercial kitchen that specializes in fermented foods such as kombucha, sourdough, pickled beans, kimchi and sauerkraut.
Foods rich in Omega 3, B6 and Tryptophan
Serotonin, the hormone responsible for mood, sleep, appetite and feelings of well-being, can be boosted naturally by consuming the right foods. Tryptophan, an amino acid which can be found in foods such as oily fish, milk, nuts and eggs, is a natural serotonin booster. Vitamin B6, which can be found in prunes, bananas, salmon and chickpeas, is responsible for the production of serotonin. Omega-3 fatty acids which are found in flax seed, fish oil and walnuts, are associated with brain function, and deficiencies can result in mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
The Bottom Line — Be Intentional
Amanda Luterman, a clinical psychotherapist specialing in sexuality refers to the act of practicing mindfulness while processing a breakup as “intentional grieving.” She’s not the only one who ascribes to this approach.
Ady Burgida, a Medical Massage Therapist and Founder of Kavana Healing Arts Spa in Houston Texas named her business after the word intention in Hebrew. As a healer, Burgida uses touch and other modalities to treat clients suffering from a variety of ailments and discomforts— including heart-break. A segment of her regular video series on healing the body focuses on intentional healing from heart break, or what her young son refers to as, “How to take out heart pain.” In this video, Burgida explores the emotionally healing practices of meditation, deep breathing, acupressure, and affirmations.
Being intentional in the grieving process should also apply to eating and cooking. The practice of preparing and tasting food can be highly meditative, mindful and therapeutic. A 2016 study reported in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that those individuals involved in daily creative pursuits, such as cooking, have the most favorable mental health outcomes.
In addition to the dietary and other practices listed above, those experiencing the painful aftermath of a breakup should eat regularly, limit intake of sugar, alcohol and processed foods, drink plenty of water, increase intake of B and D vitamins and get plenty of exercise.
While a breakup can feel like the end of the world, mindfulness, discipline, self-compassion— and the right foods— can help the heartbroken find happiness, peace and stability once more.