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Foods That Boost Mood and Fight Holiday Weight Gain

Neither stress nor holiday weight gain need ruin your holidays this year. Here are tips about eating habits and foods that can boost your mood when a stressful situation strikes. You’ll feel calmer–and be trimmer–throughout the holiday season. 

How Blood Sugar Alters Your Mood

The best way to cope with holiday stress and obligations is to keep your mood and energy stable. You'll not only feel better, but will be much less likely to overeat.

"Choosing foods that your body absorbs slowly keeps blood sugar steady, maintaining your feelings on an even keel," says Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Food & Mood. Slow-digesting foods include whole-grain cereal with milk, brown rice with salmon or chicken breast, a peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread, or a spinach salad and half a turkey sandwich with milk. You want to eat either quality carbohydrates or carbohydrates mixed with protein, she says.

Foods that absorb quickly, such as sugar, white bread, or anything refined, spike blood sugar high; then cause it to suddenly crash. After a crash, you'll feel crabby and hungry, and end up grabbing chocolate bars or candy -- setting yourself up for yet another blood sugar dive, Somer says.

Boost Your Mood With Feel-Good Serotonin

High-protein diets may help you drop pounds, but they won’t do much to raise your spirits. That's because your body craves serotonin, the feel-good chemical found in foods that boost your mood.

"Carbohydrates are essential for moving tryptophan (the amino acid that makes up serotonin) across the brain," says Susan M. Kleiner, PhD, RD, co-author of The Good Mood Diet. When your blood sugar drops, less carbohydrate is available in the bloodstream; less tryptophan moves across into the brain and your mood can plummet.  

In fact, researchers at Arizona State University found that after just two weeks, a very low-carb diet increased fatigue and reduced the desire of overweight adults to exercise.  

Serotonin fights holiday weight gain, too. "It tells you when you've had enough by causing satiety (a feeling of fullness) and reducing your appetite," says Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet.

Nix Stress-Induced Mood Swings

Although experts generally advise avoiding simple carbs, afternoon mood swings beg for fast fixes.

"If you feel grumpy in the afternoon, eat only carbohydrates," Somer says. Eating protein with carbs blocks serotonin production, while high-fat foods keep digestion slow. Wurtman agrees. "When you're stressed, reach for carbs -- simple sugars that digest quickly," she says. "Bingeing on simple carbohydrates is your body's natural way of dealing with stress -- but you can’t include protein or fat.”

"Abort an afternoon stress binge with a power gel called Gu," Wurtman says. "It's made of pure sugar (glucose), contains 100 calories and zero fat, and is digested quickly; allowing serotonin to make you feel better fast." Research conducted in Wurtman's weight loss center showed that women who consumed a pack of Gu found it so sweet and filling that they had no desire for more.

Keep in mind that Gu takes time to work, she tells WebMD. Glucose may be a quick fix, but it isn't instant. Tell yourself, "I know this is going to work," Just eat your snack; then distract yourself with something you enjoy. In 20 minutes, the food you've consumed will abort bingeing on high-sugar, high-fat foods like weight loss sabotaging holiday treats.

If Gu is not for you, Wurtman recommends trying low-fat foods with carbs such as a baked potato, graham crackers, popcorn, pretzels, or low-fat cereal, which is also loaded with healthy fiber.

Food and Diet Tips to Keep Your Mood Stable

Besides carbohydrates, studies indicate that many other foods -- along with healthful eating habits -- may help our moods and somewhat ease depression.

Frequent small meals: Eating frequent, small meals of healthy foods helps keep your blood sugar levels even, avoiding diet-related mood swings. Eat a small meal or snack every three to four hours to give you sustained energy and keep your blood sugar stable.

Fight Holiday Weight Gain

It's easy to feel overwhelmed during the holiday season -- what with shopping, parties, decorating, baking, and the inevitable stress of unwanted obligations. But a healthy diet not only helps boost your mood, it also helps you fight holiday weight gain. Try these tips to get through the holiday season in a good mood without gaining weight: 

Fall and winter tend to increase carbohydrate cravings. “Instead of trying to ignore them or reaching for chocolate, cookies or ice cream, plan portion-controlled carb snacks at least once or twice a day, such as 3/4 cup of crunchy cereal,” Wurtman says. They'll help keep your mood even and your waistline small.

Reap the Rewards

"Alter your eating habits, and you'll notice a change within just two weeks," Somer says. "Your body will reward you with more energy, and your mind with a calmer, positive, more stable mood."

During the stress-filled holiday season, who could ask for more?

SOURCES: Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Food & Mood.Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet; co-founder of the Adara weight loss centers.Susan M. Kleiner, PhD, RD, co-author of The Good Mood Diet.Wurtman, R.J. Scientific American, January 1989: pp 68-75.White, A.M. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, October 2007; vol 107: pp 1792-1796.WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature: "Top 10 Ways to Boost Your Energy."  WebMD Medical Reference: “Diet for Depression.”

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on 9/30/2008

© 2008 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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