When I’m stressed or feeling down, I’m quick to turn to chocolate – and I don’t stop at the recommended single high-cocoa dark chocolate square! That’s the trouble with emotional eating. Once you start, it’s hard to just say no more.
But there are better ways to get your smile back. The feel-good factor from chocolate is mostly a temporary sugar rush, although unprocessed raw cacao nibs are known for their antioxidant properties to help you fend off illness. I’m not talking about a Kit Kat bar, but those bits of the cacao beans themselves that have been roasted, separated from their husks and broken into smaller pieces. You can add them to your oatmeal or homemade trail mix.
Don’t be fooled by the Oh Henry! bar commercials. Sugar and carbohydrate “highs” provide only short-lived mood boosts, even in the homestretch of winter when we’re eagerly checking the forecast for signs of spring.
New research says you can use food to tweak your brain for lasting happiness by doing what the French do: Reach for fruit, vegetables and fat.
Now, when they say fat, they don’t mean eating trademark French buttery croissants or hunks of Brie cheese. Or both together! They’re talking about healthy fats, like the good-for-you monounsaturated fats in olives and olive oil, for example.
The French are happy people, as it turns out, and it starts with their daily food and joie de vivre. A study from France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research followed the eating habits of more than 12,000 women and men for a decade. The happiest eaters dined on produce, fish and healthy oils. I’m sure there was some chocolate mousse and cream-filled éclairs, but on occasion only.
Fruits and vegetables are packed with essential nutrients, fiber and disease-fighting antioxidants; fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids for the brain, the heart and overall health; healthy oils, especially olive oil, are high in healthy, monounsaturated fat.
I love my olive oil, and am happy to report that countless studies have shown olive oil is good for the cardiovascular system. It helps to prevent heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. It’s also a known food for healthy cholesterol levels, and protecting the liver, the pancreas and fighting depression – keeping you well and happy.
Try dipping raw vegetable sticks like zucchini and carrots into a little olive oil with herbs, or drizzle some on your greens or fish. Extra-virgin olive oil has a low smoking point, so it’s best for cold dishes and dipping, while virgin olive oil is good for lower-temperature cooking. It has a higher smoking point and great flavor!
In the French study, women who ate the most of these mood-boosting foods were 27 to 36 percent less likely to feel down or blue. The men were a significant 70 percent less likely to feel depressed. I come back to this realization time and again: Food truly is medicine.
The researchers also say the French are far less prone to being overweight or obese than Americans. For centuries, they’ve mastered the art of mindful eating (savoring every bite). There’s no deprivation or guilt over a sweet now and again. They have a diet high in variety and fresh, unprocessed foods, where we eat fast food and microwave meals more often than we care to admit.
They enjoy life, they’re happy, and they don’t eat and drive at the same time, like typical Americans. A meal is a sit down and relax affair.
I’m convinced that we can learn a thing or two from the French. The challenge of our American culture is we’re reliant on convenience and caught up in a cycle of rushing through our days.
Of those French women and men followed for a decade, those whose diets contained a lot of fried food, processed meat, snacks and desserts raised women’s risk of depression by as much as 59 percent and men’s by almost the same amount.
Studies have linked diet choices to inflammation. Red meat and poultry, for example, contain arachidonic acid. This is a type of omega-6 fatty acid that gets converted into inflammation-raising proteins called cytokines, which have been linked to low moods.
The antioxidants in produce and the healthy omega-3 fatty acids in fish, on the other hand, work to fight inflammation. So what’s the dietary downfall? Researchers say the modern diet is higher in omega-6s, from meat and poultry, and lower in fish omega-3s.
In fact, a 2012 study from Benedictine University outside Chicago found that cutting out animal protein for just two weeks improved moods. New research, though, says beef and other animal proteins are good to boost your immune system – of particular benefit in the short and darker days of winter when we’re not getting as much sunlight and its mood-lifting vitamin D.
I’m not suggesting you give up on meat entirely, but try some vegetarian meals each week, just to see how you feel. One simple swap is beans: They’re inexpensive, versatile and easy to prepare. You can make a quick bean chili with sautéed onions, peppers, tomatoes and your bean of preference. Serve over whole-grain rice and you’re good to go!
When you’re ready to eat, set the table and sit down to really savor your meal, even when you’re eating alone. Put on a little music to suit your mood and enjoy a glass of wine, on occasion, as the French certainly do.
There’s a good lesson here that we can take pleasure in fresh, wholesome food, and spend some time in the kitchen to make it ourselves. Our food should make us happy – and research says it can.
Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and BelMarraHealth.com. Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.