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Can certain foods make us happier?

Take a bite out of winter. Literally.  (Photo Credit: Prerana Jangam via pdpics)

Take a bite out of winter. Literally. (Photo Credit: Prerana Jangam via pdpics)

The long nights, short days and frequent grey skies of winter start taking their toll around this time of year, sapping energy and making many people feel moody and short-tempered.

Turning to the Internet for real answers is futile; mostly it’s a slew of web articles about the power of foods to instantly make you happier and improve your mood. We’ve all read the long list of ingredients reportedly linked to the release of brain chemicals that control feelings of wellbeing: everything from dark chocolate and red wine to walnuts, chilies, Greek yogurt and bananas is said to be a mood ‘power food’.

Physiological and emotional responses to certain foods are real, says Roberto Gueli a registered holistic nutritionist and co-owner, with Anke Kungl, of Halifax, Nova Scotia-based Conscious Catering.

“We often underestimate or misuse the power of food to alter our mood,” says Gueli. “So many of our everyday pick-me-ups are mood changers.” Sugar, for example, triggers dopamine, while coffee has been shown to increase serotonin levels, both of which are what Gueli calls ‘happiness’ hormones. Though this may sound good, it comes with a warning. “As natural as these biochemical responses are, the habitual use of certain foods that affect our mood can create a dependency and lead to an emotional roller coaster ride,” Gueli says.

Rebecca Bilodeau, a registered dietitian and registered holistic nutritionist based in Moncton, New Brunswick, completely agrees. She says foods like these should not be considered part of an overall strategy for health.

“It feeds into the idea that there’s a quick fix for everything and unfortunately it just leaves people more dissatisfied,” she says. “It’s going to give them that comfort and emotional response, but it’s going to be very short-lived.”

Instead, Bilodeau encourages her clients to make a plan for eating and staying active that is equally consistent in summer and winter.

Make a plan to store fresh vegetables through the winter. (Photo Credit: Conscious Catering via Facebook)

Make a plan to store fresh vegetables through the winter. (Photo Credit: Conscious Catering via Facebook)

“If you’re an active person outside in the summertime and you’re trying to be consistent with eating lots of fruits and vegetables, then you need to have a plan in place for winter when those things are less accessible,” she says.

That can mean planning ahead at harvest time to stock up and store root vegetables and other crops that keep well over the winter. But it can also mean relaxing self-imposed rules about eating only local, seasonal produce, substituting frozen counterparts when necessary.

“A great thing to keep in mind is that, at this time of year, the fresh veggies in the grocery store are often going to be less nutritious than their frozen counterparts,” says Bilodeau. This is because a lot of fresh vegetables are being shipped from very long distances in winter.

Hydration is another critical part of maintaining energy levels and not feeling fatigued all the time. Bilodeau says people often feel they don’t need to drink water when it is cold but that, in fact, the opposite is true. “Because we’re in our houses and exposed to dry heat sources, we should actually be bumping up the amount of water we drink,” she says. Drinking water is as important in winter as it is in summer.

The favourite go-to mood enhancers, sugar and caffeine, are very effective but also highly addictive, say Gueli and Kungl. “Their chemical response causes a boost, but not having them can be at the root of why we are crashing or irritable. If we experience intense cravings, mood swings or withdrawal headaches,  that food or drink may have too great a power over our mood.”

Roberto Gueli (Photo Credit: Conscious Catering via Facebook)

Physiological and emotional responses to certain foods are real, says Roberto Gueli, a registered holistic nutritionist. (Photo Credit: Conscious Catering via Facebook)

Similar to relaxing self-imposed rules about maintaining a local-only diet in winter, Gueli says the occasional coffee, chocolate or pastry should not be forbidden. The better approach is to eat these items in moderation, to prevent getting hooked on using food to change mood. The key, he says, is balance and creating good habits to ensure overall well being: eating well, getting enough rest and ensuring proper hydration.

Ultimately, Bilodeau, Gueli and Kungl agree that maintaining good energy and positive mental health, even throughout a winter such as we’ve had this year, requires more than just plugging a particular endorphin-releasing food into a diet.

Bilodeau advises creating a larger web of inter-related diet and lifestyle behaviours and choices. “I just do not want to lead anyone to believe that eating a bite of chocolate will take away their blue winter mood – for any more than a few minutes anyway,” she says.

Kungl and Gueli say the best way to keep smiling in this challenging season is to embrace it instead of wishing for spring to come sooner. Some of their suggestions for managing winter moods include:

  • Getting outdoors as much as possible. Remember the old saying, “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” Dress warmly and find winter activities you enjoy, or just take a walk around the block. There is no escaping the need for fresh air, sunshine, exercise and contact with nature for sustained wellness.
  • Making your environment sunnier and brighter. Open blinds, trim tree branches that block sunlight and sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office.
  • Being social. While winter seems like a good time for hibernating, it is not an excuse for being anti-social. For humans, winter survival has always been intimately linked with coming together to be supportive and convivial as a community. Winter is the perfect time to visit loved ones, have potlucks and lend a hand.

Take a break

Maintaining balance in our bodies is essential to optimizing health. To do so, it can help to avoid or take regular breaks from the following foods:

Refined sugar: Fluctuates blood sugar levels and can cause moderate to drastic mood swings.
Alternatives: honey, maple syrup, stevia, dried fruit.

Caffeine: Stimulates wakefulness and can override symptoms of fatigue, but habitual use can result in burnout or exhaustion.
Alternatives: yerba mate, green smoothies, alternating coffee or black tea with green tea.

Alcohol: Chemically a depressant, and addictive if regularly used to alleviate elevated stress, anger, frustration, tension and boredom.
Alternatives: carbonated water, herbal tea, quality fruit juice, kombucha.

Modern wheat and processed dairy: For a growing number of people, these allergy trigger foods can cause low energy, confusion, digestive discomfort and chronic inflammation.
Alternatives: hypo-allergenic diet that excludes wheat, corn, soy, eggs and dairy, at least until symptoms subside.

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