NACA BLOG - Holiday Food and Mental Health - 11/24/2021

​Nov. 24, 2021
Brenda Baker
NACA Director of Finance & Administration

As we approach the fall and winter holidays, many friends and family members will be reuniting for the first time since the onset of the pandemic. While there is excitement at the prospect of returning to the "normalcy" of festive gatherings, many people across all ages struggle with mental health issues that were exacerbated by COVID-19 and the Delta variant. In fact, according to an article in the November issue of Natural Awakenings magazine (Columbia, SC edition), nearly one in five people live with a mental health condition. It comes as no surprise that physical and mental health are closely linked. So, it naturally follows that a healthy diet can have a positive impact on mental health. How should this affect our approach to holiday food?

According to Dr. Uma Naidoo, a Harvard trained nutritional psychiatrist (who knew that was even a profession?) and author of This is Your Brain on Food, the nerves supplying the gastrointestinal tract communicate directly with the brain by way of the vagus nerve. Dr. Naidoo notes the gut contains the highest number of serotonin (the happiness hormone) receptors.

Nutritionist Amy Spindel, founder of Food With Thought Nutrition, adds, "What we eat affects mental health in many ways." Deficiencies in certain nutrients cause poor production of serotonin and dopamine, both of which are needed to eliminate depression and anxiety. Conversely, high sugar and carbohydrates cause blood sugar fluctuations causing the body to scramble to regulate glucose. In addition to spikes in insulin, this results in spikes of cortisol or adrenaline (stress hormones) that may result in depression and anxiety.

With Thanksgiving and other holidays during which holiday fare will be served approaching, can we serve up nutrient-rich options that promote mental health and wellness and still enjoy the traditional favorites? Making those changes isn't easy. One way is to add new things rather than removing the favorites.

"Thanksgiving favorites that are ample in neurotransmitter-producing nutrients include turkey, shellfish, sweet potatoes, acorn squash, asparagus, leafy greens, oranges and green beans," Spindel adds. Add to these traditional favorites some extra veggies, antioxidant-rich strawberries or add herbs and celery to stuffing for phytonutrients and fiber.

Part of the joy of being with family during the holidays is enjoying the traditions that have been handed down over generations. These include the foods we enjoy when we gather. Making a few small changes to increase nutritious options while maintaining the old favorites will make everyone happy at the table and beyond.

Brenda Baker is the director of finance and administration at the National Association for Campus Activities. Baker has dedicated her 40-year career to managing associations' financial resources and services.

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