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Avoid the Comfort Food Trap
The termcomfort foodis a bit of a misnomer. We indulge in stuff like milkshakes and cheeseburgers to soothe ourselves, but they can actually have the opposite effect once they pass our lips—and it's not just because our clothes feel distressingly tighter.
According to researchers who have studied the link, fast food and packaged pastries can cause inflammation that interferes with mood-regulating chemicals in the brain and can even lead to symptoms of depression.
Fortunately, there are plenty of yummy and satisfying options that will buoy your moodandslim you down.
There's a reason so many so-called comfort foods like mashed potatoes and lasagna are carb-based. Carbs fuel the production of serotonin, your brain's main feel-good neurotransmitter, which activates receptors that help control mood and appetite. But when there is less daylight, your body produces less serotonin, says Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., coauthor ofThe Serotonin Power Diet—meaning you want to eat more than usual in winter to keep your spirits up. But careful: Not all carbs are created equal.
THE FIX:Eat complex carbs like whole-grain cereal, rice, and oatmeal, which are digested more slowly than refined grains, staving off hunger (and crankiness). For spuds, swap white ones for sweet potatoes, which are rich in B vitamins and lycopene, nutrients that have been shown to help depression.
HABIT: Reaching for Bad Fats
Some experts say the tendency to seek out fattening foods in the winter may be a leftover evolutionary urge, since bulking up gives your organs insulation from the cold and may also bolster your immune system. (But unless you're an Arctic explorer, that extra layer is probably not a personal goal.)
THE FIX:Friend the right fats. Healthy fats that contain omega-3's are known to support brain-cell function and positive moods, says nutritionist Elizabeth Somer, R.D., author ofEat Your Way to Happiness. Fish are among the best sources, especially salmon and sardines. Low-fat milk that's fortified with DHA is also a good choice and often contains vitamin D (see "Eat Sunshine," right).
HABIT: Cranking Up the Heat
It's natural to crave something warm on chilly days, but many mood-boosting nutrients, including folate (found in kale, lentils, asparagus, broccoli, and beets) are damaged by heat, says Drew Ramsey, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and coauthor ofThe Happiness Diet. What's more, Harvard researchers found that cooking food can actually decrease how many calories your body uses during digestion. (We burn off about 10 percent of what we consume through digestion, a not insignificant amount.)
THE FIX:The less you have to zap your food with heat, and the more you have to chew and crunch it as you polish it off, the better. If you can't imagine subsisting on a completely raw diet (don't blame you!), try steaming your veggies. AJournal of Agricultural and Food Chemistrystudy reports that this cooking technique best preserves the nutrients you need.
HABIT: Gorging on Sweets
Fewer hours of daylight also means your body may be producing more of the sleep-inducing chemical melatonin, which can leave you lethargic and craving sugar, a quick source of energy. But high-sugar diets are linked to an increased risk of depression, and the sweet stuff causes blood-sugar spikes that can make you grumpy, says Jeffrey Rossman, Ph.D., author ofThe Mind-Body Mood Solution.
THE FIX:Get your buzz from caffeine—a study in theArchives of Internal Medicinefound that it may slash depression risk in women. Just don't overdo it or consume it too late in the day—Rossman recommends two to three 8-ounce cups of coffee a day—since studies link too little sleep to weight gain. Cutting back on caffeine? Load up on B vitamins instead: B12, B9 (a.k.a. folate), and B6 help convert amino acids into the mood-and energy-lifting neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, according to Ramsey. Sources include poultry, leafy greens, fish, lentils, and eggs.
Vitamin D may be the most important nutrient for chasing away the winter blues--and research shows most people don't get enough this time of year. Much of the D in our bodies is made using UVB rays from the sun. In winter, especially in northern locations, not only are the days shorter, but also the angle of the sun is so indirect that fewer UVB rays break through the atmosphere. (A study published by the Mayo Clinic found that higher levels of vitamin D were directly related to decreased risk for depression.) If you live north of Atlanta, pack your diet with D-rich foods, including fortified low-fat dairy and cereal, pork, mushrooms, and tuna. With about a third of the vitamin D (and most of the DHA and EPA omega-3's) you need each day, canned tuna is pretty much happiness in a tin.
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