Q: I often anxious or depressed during the holidays. I compensate by justifying overeating and indulging in more sweets and alcohol than usual. Unfortunately, it seems like overindulging in the holiday cheer isn’t working for me. I just feel more moody and depressed. I’d like to start the new year with energy and enthusiasm, so what can I do?
A: It sounds like you already know the answer. Your diet does affect mood by changing brain chemistry, so eat mindfully. Eating beautifully decorated holiday cookies might seem festive and happy, but have you ever looked at the ingredients? They’re mostly white refined sugar, butter, and flour.
Eating simple carbohydrates like sugar can quickly bring down your mood, and leave you tired and craving more sweets.
I suggest you develop new holiday traditions. Eat “smart” carbohydrates instead, like whole grains, fresh multi-colored and dark green, leafy vegetables, and assorted fruits, fiber, and legumes. Complex carbohydrates should make up about 50% of your diet.
Eat a serving of complex carbohydrates for a quick “pick me up” of energy and mood. Why do complex carbohydrates improve mood? They help transport tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, to enter the brain. Serotonin elevates and regulates mood, and reduces anxiety and irritability.
Alcohol may also seem festive and celebratory, but be careful if you are feeling down as it is considered a depressant. Some studies show alcohol in moderation has cardiovascular benefits (maximum one drink of wine or beer per day for women, or two for men). But avoid it if you’re depressed or on some medications. Ask your doctor if you have any dietary restrictions. Green tea is high in anti-oxidants and may reduce your incidence of depression.
Drink coffee in moderation, especially if you’re anxious or have insomnia.
Getting enough sleep is also important for mood, weight management and well-being.
Drinking mostly water is a healthier choice.
Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Eat fatty fish, raw walnuts, omega-3 fortified eggs or peanut butter, canola oil, and flaxseeds. Try fresh ground flaxseed on yogurt, whole grain cereal, or in smoothies. Green smoothies that combine fresh fruits with green, leafy vegetables are a delicious, healthy option. Eating breakfast is important for mood, but stick with complex carbs, low-fat dairy, lean protein, fresh fruits, and healthy fats like nuts.
Avoid tempting but unhealthy pastries, sugary cereals, and white flour.
Vitamins and minerals are also important for mood.
Make sure you have adequate vitamin D (and sunlight). Add brazil nuts and seafood to your diet to increase selenium. Vitamin B12, folate, and thiamine are other important mood regulators, and may be especially low in alcoholics. SAM-e is an over-the-counter supplement that decreases depression, arthritis, and blood sugar levels, but shouldn’t be taken if you are bipolar or on anti-depressant medications.
Eating a healthy diet year round reduces depression and anxiety as well as heart disease, dementia, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. Why put on extra pounds to start your year? Think prevention instead of a quick fix. Be mindful of portion sizes, because obesity and overeating are also linked to depression.
Regular exercise is good for mood as well as your health in general. Quit smoking if you haven’t already.
Don’t eat too much fat, especially saturated fats like red meat.
How about some good news? Dark chocolate is a mood elevator and an anti-oxidant (when eaten in moderation, preferably at least 70 percent cacao). There are many good books and internet articles available for more information on food and mood.
Dr. Marian Wymore is a family health physician and a resident of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.