Good Will & Good Choices

At the holidays and beyond, eating right means feeling more peaceful too.




The shorter days, dark skies and frigid temps of winter are here, which, for some, can temper the joy of the holidays. And while this season of celebration brings office parties, neighborhood gatherings and family festivities packed with traditional treats, extravagant dinners and free-flowing spirits, overindulging in food and fun often equates with extra pounds. 

But can it also wreak havoc on our mental health — especially if we’re already inclined to depression or the holiday blues? Much more than we may think, health experts say. 

Extra fats, sweets and alcohol, combined with anxiety from family battles and financial stress, can deliver a physical and emotional wallop — one which can drive us right back to the gingerbread.

 The Root of Wellbeing

According to the USDA study “What We Eat in America,” about three-fourths of the population already has a regular diet low in vegetables, fruits, dairy and healthy oils. More than half the population meets or exceeds the total grain and protein guidelines — and most Americans currently exceed the recommendations for added sugars, saturated fats and sodium. Which makes the tendency to overindulge throughout the colder months unwelcome icing on, well, too much cake to begin with.

It may surprise you to learn that serotonin — one of the body’s most powerful feel-good chemicals — is mostly produced in your gastrointestinal tract. So what you send through it is key.

“We’re always tempted to eat more than we normally do at holiday functions because the food is good and the company is enjoyable,” says Rebecca Zach, a culinary and clinical nutrition dietetic technician at Rogers Behavioral Health in Oconomowoc, who ensures that patients have adequate energy balance and enough nutrients. 

“Most people are confused about what good nutrition is due to the mountains of conflicting information,” Zach continues. “Food fuels the production of cells, which build structures and hormones — the chemical messengers for all physiological processes. Cell viability is affected by over- or under-consumption of food. Our bodies and brains were made to require protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals and fluids to function and survive. And certain fundamental nutrients are responsible for producing neurotransmitters in the brain. There is no way around that.”

Sarah Philipp is a certified nutritionist at MKE MindBody Wellness. She often helps clients understand the connection between nutrition and physical and mental wellbeing. 

“What we put into our bodies directly impacts our functioning on all levels,” Philipp says. “Our digestive system is our ‘roots.’ Just like a plant, when we have healthy roots, everything else flourishes. This means lower inflammation, less pain, healthier digestion, more energy, clearer and more youthful skin, better focus and, of course, a more balanced and more elevated mood.”

Dashing through the Dough

Drinking and dining are often the centerpieces of family celebrations and social gatherings. But too much solitude brings dramatic stressors too.

“Our holiday experience is usually so entangled with food and eating,” Philipp explains. “We often eat due to nostalgia, loneliness, fatigue and other discomforts rather than actual hunger.” Philipp talks with her clients about mindful eating and redirecting the focus onto the overall experience rather than just consuming the food.

“The holidays are a time to connect with loved ones, get cozy and create goals for the new year,” she says. “Holiday foods are a wonderful backdrop for this event, but they don’t have to consume us or the season as the main event. I work with my clients on savoring the foods that are special and memorable rather than mindlessly eating foods that are just ‘there’ or eaten out
of habit.”

Both Zach and Philipp offer ideas about how to enjoy the experience.

“I keep it simple by emphasizing three key aspects — moderation, balance and variation of nutrient-dense foods,” Zach says. For optimal brain function, she adds, make deliberate choices.

Zach recommends choosing lean meats (chicken breast, sirloin or round steak) or protein alternatives (tofu, tempeh or legumes), whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, whole grain bread or rolls), non-starchy vegetables, low fat dairy or soy milk — and always plenty of water. In short: keep it healthy. 

“Even a pie crust or cookies can be made with whole wheat pastry flour!” she points out. 

Philipp tells her clients to keep one word in mind to keep themselves in check. That word is “memorable.” 

“Make a plan to eat and drink only memorable things,” she explains. “If your cousin brews his or her own beer and this is a special treat, then enjoy the heck out of it. But, if you’re seated next to a candy bowl and just eating because it’s there, there is nothing memorable or worthwhile about that. And chances are, you’re not going to feel great about that choice tomorrow. 

“I think most people are surprised by how little they have to do to feel better,” Philipp adds. “Every little bit counts!”  MKE