MINNEAPOLIS – Every afternoon, is your office suddenly filled with workers who are lethargic and cranky? Are you one of them?
The culprit likely is the eating free-for-all that takes place during the holidays. Eating too much high-sugar, high-carbohydrate, high-fat food can produce an office full of people who lack energy and are moody.
"We talk about comfort food making us feel better," said Dr. Henry Emmons. "And it does – for half an hour or 45 minutes. An hour or two later, our energy drops, our mood drops and we can feel more anxious."
And if we really overdo it, "it doesn't stop at the end of the holidays," he warned. "You can get into a pattern that continues for months."
Nonetheless, the office holiday pig-out remains a tradition. In addition to potluck buffets, many co-workers bring in brownies, cookies and cupcakes to share with their office mates.
They don't bring bunches of bananas. That's also part of the tradition.
"Most people equate the holidays with sugar bombs," said Dr. Gregory Plotnikoff. "That's strictly social conditioning and marketing. There's nothing natural to that."
Emmons and Plotnikoff are part of a movement to change eating habits by making people aware of how the food we eat can affect everything from bad breath to mental health. Emmons, a psychiatrist at Minneapolis-based Partners in Resilience, is author of the books "The Chemistry of Joy" and "The Chemistry of Calm." Plotnikoff is an integrative-medicine physician at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis and author of "Trust Your Gut."
"Most people are oblivious to how food can affect us," Emmons said.
The impact often is magnified this time of year, he said. In addition to there being a lot more snacking going on, people also are dealing with the stress of the busy season as well as the heightened emotional sensitivity that many folks feel around the holidays.
"When your mood already is on a downward slide, having your diet out of balance is going to push it further down," he said.
Lisa Kane, a licensed dietitian for Pink Pantry Solutions, a Minneapolis clinic that focuses on modifying the diets of cancer patients, teaches a class on Food & Mood at Pathways, a health resource center in Minneapolis. She warns clients about the ways rampant snacking causes blood sugar levels to roller-coaster.
"How our blood sugar spikes and crashes really determines our ability to stay cheerful and even-keeled," she said. "Running back and forth to the sweets or showing up at your desk with the biggest bowl of M&Ms can mess with your head."
At the Health Recovery Center in Minneapolis, founder and executive director Joan Mathews-Larson doesn't allow holiday snacks. Author of the book "Depression-Free, Naturally," she considers eating high-sugar, high-carb foods a slippery slope.
"It can – and it will, in many cases – lead to hypoglycemia," she said. Once people start to binge on sugar, it's hard to stop. "The craving is set up when the brain is signaling for sugar. When you're in a hypoglycemic state and the brain has to have its sugar to run, it just won't leave you alone."
Office politics can make it tricky to turn up your nose on the snacks, Plotnikoff said. The folks who bring in the food, "which is often homemade, see it as an expression of love and caring," he said. Snubbing the treats could be taken as an insult.
That's why Plotnikoff and Emmons preach moderation. And they don't sugarcoat the self-control that requires.
"I know, it stinks," Emmons said with a laugh. "I love holiday treats. If I didn't get any holiday treats, I'd feel deprived. But I don't overdo it. If I do have a sweet, I'll eat it with a protein to help soften the blow."
Plotnikoff advocates for replacing fatty snacks with healthier ones.
"If people are aware of the options, they can make better choices," he said. "Knowledge is power. And most of this isn't hard to do. I'm a kitchen klutz – some people would say I'm actually a hazard in the kitchen – but even I can do it."
To help highlight healthy options, he has launched a recipe exchange at www.gregoryplotnikoff.com. He got things started by posting what he describes as an idiot-proof recipe for kale chips: toss kale with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes.
"They cost half as much as a bag of Doritos and are 100 times as healthy," he said.
The holidays are a great time to experiment with options, he said. "Some of the spices associated with the holidays – nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon – are incredibly healthy."
Eating healthier overall gives people some wiggle room when it comes to breaking the rules for special occasions, Mathews-Larson said. But if you're already hooked on a junk-food diet, "then you can't go on a sugar binge without paying a price."
Maintaining regular eating patterns during the holidays also helps, Emmons said.
"Stick with eating three meals a day," he said. "And if you do feel the urge for sweets, eat them with one of the meals. It's a lot easier on your body."
If you can't mix the snack with a meal, at least mix the snack food with something healthier, Kane said. Instead of grabbing a handful of chocolates, mix in some nuts for fats and protein and raisins for fiber.
If we change the way we think about snack food, we'll end up thinking clearer, she said.
"We need to incorporate foods that are good for brain chemistry," she said. "We need to redefine the term 'comfort food.'"
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