The end-of-year holidays have arrived, and for many people, the holiday season is closely connected to food.
Those of us who celebrate Christmas typically bake cookies, pies, and other sweets and cook traditional Christmas dinners featuring an abundance of hearty dishes. Celebrants of Hanukkah eat a variety of fried dough or fried potato treats like sufganiyot, latkes, and fritas de prasa, and they might also prepare feasts with roast goose. And although New Year’s Eve is often associated with alcoholic beverages, some Americans choose to celebrate the New Year by eating pork, cabbage, black-eyed peas, and lentil soup.
With all this food around, many people worry about gaining weight due to holiday-related eating. However, the effect of the food we eat goes beyond our waistline. As we’ve previously discussed on our blog, nutrition can also have a significant impact on our mental health. This is because the same nutrients that change our bodily functioning also affect the chemical processes in our brains, which can lead to changes in cognition and emotion.
Just as a little overindulgence won’t hurt our bodies in the long run, neither will it severely impact our mental health—but a consistently poor diet over a long period of time can be quite damaging to our physical and mental health. That’s why it’s important to be mindful of what and how much we eat, especially when we’re tempted by an abundance of delectable dishes.
In this blog post, we highlight several nutritional facts you should keep in mind to practice healthy eating throughout the holiday season!
Binge Eating and Mood Disorders
It’s very easy to overeat during the holidays, and many people end up consuming more calories than normal. Eating large amounts of food in a short period of time is known as “binge eating,” which isn’t particularly dangerous to our health if we only do it once in a while.
However, some people may feel the urge to binge eat more frequently, as often as one or more times each week. When this is the case, they may suffer from binge eating disorder, which the Mayo Clinic defines as “a serious eating disorder in which you frequently consume unusually large amounts of food and feel unable to stop eating.” People with binge eating disorder may feel that they can’t control how much they eat, and they may feel shame or disgust with themselves after binging.
It’s not surprising, then, that binge eating disorder tends to co-occur with mood and anxiety disorders. A person who has binge eating disorder may eat in order to improve their mood, but the resulting guilt about their actions may end up worsening their mood instead. Even people who experience depression alone may feel negatively about themselves after a period of binge eating, even if they only overeat a single time.
For these reasons, people who suffer from binge eating disorder or a mood or anxiety disorder should be cautious about overeating during the holidays.
Fatty Foods and Brain Health
For many years, nutritionists and dietitians have been sounding the alarm about high-fat diets and their harm on the human body. Most notably, diets that are high in cholesterol, saturated fats and trans fats are heavily associated with heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. These same “bad” fats can also cause irregularities in our brains.
The brain, like the rest of the body, actually needs a certain amount of dietary fats for healthy functioning. Medical writer Dr. Maria Cohut notes, “The brains of mammals, including humans, actually need certain fatty acids—such as omega-3—to function correctly. Humans bodies, in particular, cannot synthesize fatty acids on their own, and so they need to absorb these nutrients from food. However, not all fatty acids are as healthful, and the overaccumulation of fatty acids in the body can lead to health problems.”
For example, some research has linked fatty acid buildup in the brains of laboratory mice with symptoms of depression. “It seems the high levels of palmitic acid in the hypothalamus alter a signaling pathway that researchers associate with traits of depression,” Cohut writes. “Thus, in mice at least, the researchers were able to confirm that the absorption of certain dietary fats has a direct impact on brain-signaling pathways that influence the development of depression.”
Other research has shown that high-fat diets can cause inflammation in the hypothalamus, which may send signals that cause us to eat more and gain weight. All of which is to say that we should limit our consumption of highly fatty foods like red meat, processed meat, butter, palm oil, pastries, and full-fat dairy products.
Sugar, Cognition, and Cravings
Sugar, like fat, is an essential part of any diet. In fact, it’s an especially important nutrient for our brains. “The brain uses more energy than any other organ in the human body and glucose is its primary source of fuel,” writes Dr. Joel Fuhrman. But like many other dietary nutrients, too much sugar can be a bad thing for both our bodies and our minds.
Once again, higher levels of sugar consumption have been scientifically linked to higher instances of depression among the general population. And among people who have type 2 diabetes, elevated blood sugar levels have also been associated with feelings of both sadness and anxiety.
In addition, excessive amounts of sugar can have negative effects on our cognitive functioning. For example, studies have found that some diabetics suffer from decreased cognitive performance that may worsen over time, leading to deficits in learning, memory, and motor speed. Fuhrman adds, “Even in those without diabetes, higher sugar consumption is associated with lower scores on tests of cognitive function. These effects are thought to be due to a combination of hyperglycemia, hypertension, insulin resistance, and elevated cholesterol.”
Finally, research suggests that sugar may activate the brain’s reward center in much the same way as alcohol and other addictive substances, which means that eating large amounts of sugar might make it harder to resist the craving for more. This is all the more reason to eat fewer sugary treats than we might like to this holiday season.