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Proper diet can combat the winter blues

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Another gloomy, snow-slippery winter’s day with the sun barely penetrating the cold, overcast skies. Time to settle in and chase away those winter blues with a heaping plate of comfort food and another glass of wine, right?

Before you self-medicate on an overabundance of all the wrong calories, check your diet. Unless you’re suffering from Seasonal Affective Depressive Disorder (SADD) or some other clinical diagnosis, your winter blues may be more a function of what you’re eating and drinking than where you’re living.

Nutritionists agree that diet has a greater impact on mood than seasonal changes. You can spin your mood in a more positive direction if you eat the right food in the proper amounts, or even at the right place and time.

“Mood can be positively or negatively affected by not only by what we eat, but how we eat it,” says Susie Kundrat, clinical associate professor and program director in the Department of Kinesiology and Nutritional Sciences at UW-Milwaukee. “The food and beverages we consume provide critical energy, nutrients and fluid for our bodies to function properly. What we consume can have a significant impact.”

A good diet thrives on balance and moderation, Kundrat says. Carbohydrates, proteins and even the right dietary fats give the body the nutrients it needs to stay healthy and function at optimal levels. 

You are what you eat, as the saying goes, but Kundrat stresses that when and how you eat also go a long way toward sustaining your health, which can help chase away the blues in winter or any other season.

“A person’s eating lifestyle is most critical to enhancing mood,” Kundrat says. 

Common sense and conscientious dietary habits make the difference when it comes to maximizing one’s food intake to enhance mood, Kundrat says. Eating on a regular schedule, one that includes breakfast every day and at least three to four meals and snacks throughout the day, provides the foundation of good dietary practice.

“Balance your meals with a protein source, whole grains and plenty of produce to get a good mix of nutrients and ‘staying power’ that provides energy over several hours,” Kundrat explains. “And don’t forget to stay hydrated throughout the day starting shortly after rising in the morning. All of these pillars are so very important.”

The timing of when you eat makes a difference in how effectively and usefully your body processes food. However, most Americans do it backward, according to Beth Olson, associate professor and extension specialist in nutrition at UW-Madison’s Department of Nutritional Sciences.

“Feeling good is less about particular foods and nutrients than it is about your overall eating pattern,” says Olson, who also stresses eating a good breakfast. “If you consume all your calories at the end of the day, when the body doesn’t have anything in particular to do with them, then you won’t have access to the calories when you need them.”

Like Kundrat, Olson stresses a balanced diet to make sure the body has access to needed micronutrients. Complex carbohydrates with ample amounts of fiber to promote an extended release of nutrients, as well as beneficial fats, play a role in making the nutrients available to the body when it needs them.

Olson says the body is better able to absorb and use micronutrients when they come from the food sources rather than as supplements in a pill form. The more food is processed, the more its nutritional value suffers, so eat food that is closest to its original form when it is harvested, both experts say.

“Include a good protein source such as lean meat, fish, eggs, nuts, milk or soy products in meals and snacks to help manage blood sugar levels and satiety,” Kundrat says. “If we keep blood sugars balanced throughout the day and feel less hungry, we are less likely to feel stressed.”

Nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids — found in fattier fish like salmon and tuna and nuts such as walnuts — play a role in decreasing inflammation in the body. Lower inflammation levels also may help manage the body’s stress response, Kundrat says.

Both experts counsel against using excess amounts of sugar, caffeine and alcohol to chase the winter blues away.

“Dietary guidelines do not advocate drinking alcohol, but if you do so, make sure it’s in moderation,” Olson says. “The same holds true for coffee and other caffeinated beverages, so there is care to be taken with the beverages you consume.”

Traditional “comfort foods,” including snacks, also play a dietary role. Again, moderation is key.

“If you are trying to manage your mood by depriving yourself of comfort foods, that might make you grumpy as well,” Olson says. “Consuming these foods in the right amount — and snack foods very sparingly — might be better mood elevators than eliminating them altogether.”

In conjunction with diet, regular exercise and the right amount of sleep play a role. Research suggests people with sleep disorders also may have weight issues, both of which contribute to a lack of energy necessary for mood-managing exercise.

“Physical activity and just being outside generally contribute to a better mood,” Olson explains. “It also helps you mobilize fuel more effectively and helps you think more clearly, but don’t go to the gym without eating something first.”

The short supply of sunlight in winter does bring down moods, due to the vitamin D that sunlight supplies. Vitamin D can be found in supplement form, but that might not necessarily make you feel better if you take it. Good eating habits, exercise and sleep can go a long way to make up for sunlight’s absence.

“No matter what you do, make sure your diet draws from a more complex food matrix that supplies the necessary nutrients,” Olson says. “Add variety to each and every meal.”

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