Editor’s note: As we enter 2023, we’re running a series of stories in Star Culture on diet and nutrition, navigating eating healthier amid rising food costs and advice on making sustainable choices.
Can we eat our way out of the “winter blues?”
Although a change in diet isn’t going to totally alleviate the symptoms many of us experience as we wait to crack the 11 hours of daylight mark that comes at the end of February, we can at least mitigate the blues through diet. So, if you’re feeling especially listless this winter, take a closer look at what’s on your plate.
“Especially around this time of year, the issue is sugar and fat,” explained Dr. Robert Levitan, the Cameron Parker Holcombe Wilson chair in depression studies at CAMH and the University of Toronto. “That’s where Seasonal Affective Disorder comes in, since there’s a relationship between the lack of light and craving carbohydrates.”
Levitan said that, while not all carbs are full of sugar, often the ones hanging around after the holidays are. Leftover party food is all pretty rich and it’s easy to justify indulging in this “comfort food” in January.
“That makes you feel better temporarily,” he adds, “But then what happens is your body releases insulin and you get very tired afterwards. So you get that sugar rush and then you get a big drop in mood.”
In fact, Levitan compares our relationship to highly-palatable snacks to alcohol, since both substances trigger the brain’s reward centre but, later on, make you feel worse than you did before you indulged.
The answer? According to Levitan, we need to make sure we’re getting enough lean protein throughout the day, because, simply enough, it makes you feel full.
“If there’s a gap, you’re going to fill it in with junk,” he said. “That’s the tendency, so if you eat enough protein, you won’t feel hungry all the time.”
Beyond this metabolic issue, a burgeoning field of research exploring the link between diet and mental health, is starting to appear and much of it offers hope for diet being an important piece of the puzzle. And much of the research is focused on the Mediterranean diet.
“The SMILES study was the first of its kind to look at diet as a primary treatment of clinical depression,” explained registered dietitian Leigh Merotto, founder of a Toronto practice with a focus on gut health and fitness. “It was a randomized control trial that saw one group receive a dietary intervention that involved meeting with a dietitian for education, support and nutritional counselling to help them follow a modified Mediterranean diet.
“And the participants in the dietary intervention group had a much greater reduction in their depressive symptoms than the control group over the three-month period.”
There are many new research projects exploring the connection, including ones focused on the role of prebiotic fibre (which is thought to be an important ingredient in the gut-mind axis) and others examining Omega-3 fatty acids, since it’s thought to be good for the brain.
“I definitely think that our diet plays a big role in our brain health and our mood, at any time of year,” added Merotto. “It’s important to reduce foods that are more inflammatory, like fried foods, alcohol and processed sweets and replace them with plant foods and healthy fats to help support the structure of our brain and the neural transmitters that play a role in our mood and our energy.”
When it comes to seasonal depression though, food can help, but it can only go so far. As Levitan points out, getting good light at this time of year is the most important fix for the winter blues. And, although a morning walk on a sunny day is a good idea, he said that anyone with significant seasonal mood symptoms is better off with an artificial light unit.
“Sitting in front of one for a half-hour every morning is probably the best way of dealing with this and it can have a very strong effect on reducing food cravings,” said Levitan. “So that’s really interesting.
“It’s not about restrained eating, that will just make it worse,” he added, “It’s important to eat, so the solution to this isn’t to stop eating in the morning or whatever, because then you’re just going to binge at night. The solution is to fill your day with calories.”
“But it’s got to be good food.”
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