Better Food, Better Mood

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Ever wonder why little Jimmy is bouncing off the walls after a holiday meal? Or Uncle Henry is more argumentative than ever? How about those underlying conflicts that seem to escalate during the holiday season?

We know the shorter days, the consumption of alcohol, the high expectations, and other underlying issues contribute to holiday stress, but rarely do we consider the "food factor."

At one time in our history, holiday fare consisted of real food: Our buffets were full of fresh, organic vegetables, pastured and grass-fed meats, and good, healthy fats. Today our "traditional" meal offers a smorgasbord of chemically altered, sugary, starchy, processed foods.

What are the implications to our health? The long-term implications are evident. Obesity, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses have skyrocketed. The short-run implications, however, may be just as daunting.

In her book Deep Nutrition, Dr. Catherine Shanahan discusses the immediate, addictive, mood-altering effect of sugar on the brain, comparing its effects to that of heroin.

Though sugar doesn't actually contain opiates like heroin, it affects us in very much the same way because it makes us release our own endogenous opiates.
Often we experience the post-sugar letdown and resolve it by eating more sugar, creating a vicious cycle that easily escalates during the holidays.

When considering mood and food, it's important to note that 90 percent of our "happiness" neurotransmitter, serotonin, is located in the gut. We know this intuitively. You're not "happy" when you're searching for the Pepto-Bismol. That "happy" feeling is simply not possible when in the throes of digestive tumult such as vomiting, diarrhea, or severe abdominal pain. It makes sense then to treat our gut lining with the utmost care, especially during the holidays.

Several years ago our family radically altered our diet, not only to improve our ailing bodies, but also to help with our mood issues. Our first Thanksgiving menu included dressing made with almond flour, crustless pumpkin pie, and mashed cauliflower. Here were some of the comments from our friends and family:

"This is the first time I don't feel sick after Thanksgiving."

"There was plenty to eat, and I still felt well."

"I woke up the next day and felt great!"

What can you do to avoid the sugar crashes and temper flares? Consider the following five suggestions.

Five Ways to De-Stress Your Holidays with Healthier Food Choices
  1. Under eat. Do not fill your stomach to capacity. Our tendency to overeat (even good foods) can contribute to sluggishness, fuzzy thinking, and poor mood. Leave your stomach partially empty. Eat slowly to help notice when you begin to feel full.
  2. Try a healthier appetizer. Consider a raw vegetable tray with a yogurt dip to help digestion in advance. Probiotic additions to your meal will go a long way to optimize your digestion and resulting mood. Other healthy appetizers include toasted pumpkin seeds, cultured carrot sticks, and deviled eggs featuring homemade lacto-fermented mayonnaise.
  3. Consider a lower-starch alternative. Sugar and starch are one and the same. Sugar is a simple carb. Starch is a complex carb, which means a string of simple sugars. Starch may take a bit longer to enter your bloodstream, but too much starch has a similar effect to too much sugar. Consider red potatoes or mashed cauliflower. Add good quality fats such as butter, ghee, or coconut oil to any starchy vegetable to help stabilize blood sugars. Or, try your hand at homemade sour cream for a nice probiotic addition.
  4. Add fermented foods. Gut bacteria plays a crucial role in the communication between our brain and gut. When healthy bacteria is introduced, our mood is directly impacted via our gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors. GABA works to calm the nervous system, a big plus during the holiday season. Options for holiday probiotic foods include cultured cranberry chutney, water kefir, sauerkraut, and more. Cultures for Health offers a wonderful array of recipes titled Incorporating Cultured Foods into Your Holiday Dishes.
  5. Experiment with a healthier dessert. Naturally sweet foods such as fresh fruit and winter squash can go a long way toward satisfying that post-meal sweet tooth. Coconut cream, coconut flour, and coconut oil offer wonderful opportunities for healthy, wholesome desserts. If this is new for your family, offer a healthier option in addition to your traditional fare. Helpful recipe sources include Free Coconut Recipes and Nourished Kitchen's Sweet Things & Desserts.
With some innovation, thought, and intention, you may find little Jimmy and grouchy Uncle Henry playing a nice relaxing game of chess after your holiday dinner!