Wait! Don’t stop reading! We’re not here to squash your holiday food dreams! For many of us, the sugary, fatty, delicious treats are the saving grace of what can be an otherwise stressful time. Indulging in sweets and savories sometimes is perfectly fine and can even be appropriate for your mental health.
But it’s also true that an overload of sugar and fat may knock you off balance a little bit, especially if you struggle with a mental health disorder. So we want to lay out some points to consider as well as some tips for enjoying all the holiday has to offer without compromising your health.
How Does Diet Affect Mental Health?
Harvard Health compares the brain to a car. Both need fuel and the higher quality of fuel we input, the better the brain or car will function. Food is the main source of fuel for the brain. Eating high-quality food will help the brain function optimally. Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourish the brain. Low-quality foods like processed foods or those high in refined sugars make it harder for the brain to regulate insulin and contribute to inflammation and cell damage. Studies show that a poor diet can worsen mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
In addition, the health of our “gut” also contributes to brain health. Within the digestive system is what scientists call a “second brain” or a “little brain.” What they’re referring to is the enteric nervous system (ENS), “two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from esophagus to rectum.” The role of the ENS is to control digestion, all the way from ingestion to elimination. Because the ENS communicates so closely with the brain, it has a powerful effect on our emotions, sending signals to the brain that trigger mood changes. This explains why people with irritable bowel syndrome have a higher rate of depression and anxiety than those without IBS.
So far, we’ve looked at the large-scale links between overall diet and mood. Now we’ll look more closely at one particular mood-influencer: sugar.
How Does Sugar Affect Mental Health?
In an article called “Your Anxiety Loves Sugar,” Healthline outlines several ways sugar affects health, particularly mental health. We summarize below.
- Sugar negatively affects mood. Even though we might feel an initial ‘high’ or ‘rush’ from eating a sugary treat, studies show that, over time, high-sugar diets can contribute to mood disorders. One 2019 study found that diets high in saturated fats and sugars correlated with greater anxiety in adults over age 60.
- Sugar can help lower stress in the short term…but this only increases dependence on sugar as a coping mechanism, leading to negative long-term effects on both mental and physical health.
- Sugar may increase your risk of depression. Eating too much sugar creates imbalances in brain chemistry that can lead to depression, multiple studies have found.
So, if you struggle with a mental health disorder, it’s wise to consider how your diet and sugar intake might be contributing to your moods.
That said, we promised we wouldn’t tell you to not eat holiday treats. And if you’re someone who can get obsessively anxious over dietary “rules” like “don’t eat sugar!” you’ll need to be careful not to spiral into worry and guilt about food.
So what can you do this holiday season to keep everything in balance and keep yourself feeling energetic, happy, and calm?
Eating Tips for the Holidays
- Listen to your body. So often, we eat in reaction rather than in conscious action. Take a few moments before you eat to tune into the body and assess what it’s truly hungry for.
- Practice moderation. It’s the key to everything, right? Choose the treats that are most appealing, and savor them. If your diet is healthy overall, your body will be able to handle some extra sugar and fat now and then.
- Eat regularly. Some people react to stress by not eating. Maybe you feel too busy to take time for breakfast or lunch when the holidays approach. Do your best to feed yourself. Keeping your blood sugar regulated with regular meals will help sustain a good mood and energy level. It will also keep you from getting so hungry that you binge on sugary, fatty food at night.
- Drink water. Staying hydrated with water will help the body eliminate waste. It will also boost your mood, energy, and clarity.
- Enjoy fruits and vegetables. If you don’t want to cut out sugary, fatty foods, add more fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet. They will help keep you hydrated and provide many essential vitamins and nutrients.
See? That’s not too hard after all.
A Healthy Choice: Miramont Behavioral Health
If holiday stress becomes overwhelming and triggers a mental health episode, reach out for help. Our professional team in Middleton, WI, is eager to help you stabilize your mental health and move forward with confidence.