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Living Mentally Well: Have your Holiday Cake and Feel Good, too!

Living Mentally Well: Have your Holiday Cake and Feel Good, too!

Written By: Jonathan Bloom on November 21, 2018

It’s holiday season! The season for spending time with friends and family, for practicing good will toward others, and for giving thanks for all we have in our lives.

Enjoying the company of friends and family during the holidays can stimulate mental health wellness. However, there are other things for which the season is well known – particularly binge eating and poor food choices – that can quickly undo the mental health benefit from socializing.

Studies show that not only are diet and depression related, but also that people with unhealthy diets are more likely to become depressed. These studies also show that people who follow healthy diets have a lower incidence of mental health issues. When you consider how intertwined your mind and gastrointestinal tract are, the correlation between diet quality and mental health makes sense.

“It’s okay to indulge once or twice, but the temptation is all around us this time of year,” says Candace McKay, a licensed and certified mental health clinician, who conducts online telemedicine sessions with Amwell’s clients. “Be mindful of what you eat and how full you feel when eating at holiday gatherings. Paying attention to your body’s signals to stop eating when you feel full will not only help during holiday season, but throughout the year as well.”

Although it is tempting to take full advantage of holiday spreads at work, in your home, or at friends’ homes, moderation is the key. Partaking only in cakes, candies, cookies and other confections will cause your blood sugar to spike. These may give you an initial boost, but they burn off quickly, and may leave you sluggish, grumpy, and hungrier than before. Still, complete deprivation can also depress your mood. There are other ways to keep your holiday fare from bringing you down.

Here are some other strategies to help you make better food choices and live mentally well during the holidays:

  • Better Watch Out: On the day of a party or family dinner, be sure to eat a sensible breakfast and (depending upon the event’s timing) lunch. This should help you avoid binging when faced with beautiful, tasty treats. Not eating before an event will make your body crave a “quick fix,” which can lead to binge eating.
  • Better Not Cry: Don’t avoid the gatherings; embrace them. Team up with a friend or family member to support each other in making the better food choices. The socialization alone will help your mood, plus a difficult task is always easier when done with a companion.
  • Better Not Pout: Throughout the season, make time for outdoor physical activity – even just a 20-minute walk two or three times a week – to help put you in the right frame of mind.
    “Studies show that physical activity improves circulation, boosts metabolism, and can improve your mood,” says McKay. “Going out for a walk in the brisk air on a sunny day can be energizing. If it’s cold, just bundle up with layers or wear well-insulated clothes.”
  • Make Your List: Put some advance planning behind your food decisions. Check the sign up list for the office party, or ask your friends or family what they’re serving. If it’s all cakes and cookies, expand your options by adding your own healthier choice – something with complex carbs and/or proteins like cheese and whole grain crackers, or homemade meatballs in a no-sugar-added sauce.
  • Check it Twice: On the day of the event, look over what your options are and make a game plan not only for what you will eat, but also for when you will eat it. Much like you would with a meal, plan to start with the better-for-you options so you’re less hungry when you choose your sweets.
  • A Little Naughty, Still Nice: Depriving yourself of holiday treats is not a wise choice; in fact, it can make you crave treats even more. Allow yourself a couple small treats spread out over the evening, supplemented by veggies or other complex carbs, and protein-based foods. You’ll avoid the crash without feeling denied.
  • Feel Good for Goodness Sake: Not all carbs are created the same. While sugary and refined carbs are bad, complex carbs absorb into your blood slowly and keep your blood sugars level. They also provide your body with the mood boosting chemical serotonin. Serotonin helps release tryptophan in your brain, an amino acid which boosts your mood. Foods that are high in serotonin may even help you lose weight!

If you’re the one hosting the party you will have more control over the food options, but you may still find that your guests have brought you some very tempting things. If that happens, McKay says, “One thing that I’ve done is bring in that extra box of cookies to work, and leave them on the break room table. A few hours later, they’ll be gone, and out of your sight; meanwhile, you will feel good about making other people happy.”

Throughout the holiday season, and for that matter throughout the year, applying guidelines like these can help you keep food from getting you down. It’s also important to make good food choices because bad ones can exacerbate a number of common conditions that affect mental health including:

  • Diabetes: High blood sugar levels may make you feel sick, anxious, sweaty, or uncomfortable; they also cause difficulty with short-term memory. Limiting sweets and simple carbs in favor of complex carbs gives you better blood sugar control, so you feel better both physically and mentally.
  • Weight Management: Seeing the numbers on the scale go down always seems to make people feel better. To avoid or at least reduce holiday weight gain, make good choices and eat foods high in serotonin – another of the body’s “feel good” chemicals – to improve your mood.
  • Eating Disorders: Binging heavily on holiday treats can leave you feeling guilty, which may compel you to take drastic measures such as abstaining from food entirely, taking laxatives to empty your system artificially, or purging yourself of what you’ve eaten. All of these are very dangerous, unhealthy ways to handle the guilt you feel after a holiday eating binge. They only cause greater depression and anxiety, and contribute to other mental and physical health issues.
  • Food Allergies: Good food choices also mean avoiding those foods to which you are allergic (e.g., nut, shellfish, or soy allergies), or intolerant (e.g., lactose/milk products or gluten intolerance). Knowing what will be available, and bringing something you are able to eat reduces the likelihood of you suffering a reaction or getting yourself sick.
  • And many others.

There are a number of other things you can do to improve your eating habits around the holidays and throughout the year. If you would like to know more, visit for more information, or to arrange for an online visit with one of our clinicians to discuss holiday eating strategies.

In the meantime, HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Living Mentally Well is a blog series about achieving mental health wellness. In each installment, AmWell’s healthcare professionals discuss how specific events, lifestyle issues, and even physical health affect mental health. These entries aim to help create a better understanding of mental health conditions, offer advice to those suffering from mental illnesses, their friends, and family members, and to help improve mental health well-being. AmWell does not intend these entries to replace treatments or meetings with mental health professionals. If you or someone you know needs additional assistance, we encourage readers to follow-up with their mental health provider and/or arrange for an online appointment with an AmWell mental health clinician.