Foods That Boost Mood and Fight Holiday Weight Gain

Don’t let stress and bad moods bring you down this holiday season.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 30, 2008
5 min read

Neither stress nor holiday weight gain need ruin your holidays this year. Here are tips about eating habits and foods that can boost your mood when a stressful situation strikes. You’ll feel calmer – and be trimmer -- throughout the holiday season.

The best way to cope with holiday stress and obligations is to keep your mood and energy stable. You'll not only feel better, but will be much less likely to overeat.

"Choosing foods that your body absorbs slowly keeps blood sugar steady, maintaining your feelings on an even keel," says Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Food & Mood. Slow-digesting foods include whole-grain cereal with milk, brown rice with salmon or chicken breast, a peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread, or a spinach salad and half a turkey sandwich with milk. You want to eat either quality carbohydrates or carbohydrates mixed with protein, she says.

Foods that absorb quickly, such as sugar, white bread, or anything refined, spike blood sugar high; then cause it to suddenly crash. After a crash, you'll feel crabby and hungry, and end up grabbing chocolate bars or candy -- setting yourself up for yet another blood sugar dive, Somer says.

High-protein diets may help you drop pounds, but they won’t do much to raise your spirits. That's because your body craves serotonin, the feel-good chemical found in foods that boost your mood.

"Carbohydrates are essential for moving tryptophan (the amino acid that makes up serotonin) across the brain," says Susan M. Kleiner, PhD, RD, co-author of The Good Mood Diet. When your blood sugar drops, less carbohydrate is available in the bloodstream; less tryptophan moves across into the brain and your mood can plummet.

In fact, researchers at Arizona State University found that after just two weeks, a very low-carb diet increased fatigue and reduced the desire of overweight adults to exercise.

Serotonin fights holiday weight gain, too. "It tells you when you've had enough by causing satiety (a feeling of fullness) and reducing your appetite," says Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet.

Although experts generally advise avoiding simple carbs, afternoon mood swings beg for fast fixes.

"If you feel grumpy in the afternoon, eat only carbohydrates," Somer says. Eating protein with carbs blocks serotonin production, while high-fat foods keep digestion slow. Wurtman agrees. "When you're stressed, reach for carbs -- simple sugars that digest quickly," she says. "Bingeing on simple carbohydrates is your body's natural way of dealing with stress -- but you can’t include protein or fat.”

"Abort an afternoon stress binge with a power gel called Gu," Wurtman says. "It's made of pure sugar (glucose), contains 100 calories and zero fat, and is digested quickly; allowing serotonin to make you feel better fast." Research conducted in Wurtman's weight loss center showed that women who consumed a pack of Gu found it so sweet and filling that they had no desire for more.

Keep in mind that Gu takes time to work, she tells WebMD. Glucose may be a quick fix, but it isn't instant. Tell yourself, "I know this is going to work," Just eat your snack; then distract yourself with something you enjoy. In 20 minutes, the food you've consumed will abort bingeing on high-sugar, high-fat foods like weight loss sabotaging holiday treats.

If Gu is not for you, Wurtman recommends trying low-fat foods with carbs such as a baked potato, graham crackers, popcorn, pretzels, or low-fat cereal, which is also loaded with healthy fiber.

Besides carbohydrates, studies indicate that many other foods -- along with healthful eating habits -- may help our moods and somewhat ease depression.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Population studies show that people who infrequently eat fish, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids, are more likely to suffer depression. So add foods rich in omega-3s to your diet. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines. Other good food sources include flaxseed, nuts, and dark, green leafy vegetables.
  • Vitamin B-12: Studies also indicate that people who eat diets low in vitamin B-12 may be at higher risk of depression. Good food sources of vitamin B-12 include lean and low-fat animal products, such as fish and low-fat dairy foods.
  • Selenium: Preliminary small studies indicate that selenium may help improve mild depression. Although more research is needed, many foods rich in selenium are healthy regardless of your mood. It can’t hurt to add these to your diet: seafood, nuts, lean meat, whole grains, beans, and low-fat dairy.

Frequent small meals: Eating frequent, small meals of healthy foods helps keep your blood sugar levels even, avoiding diet-related mood swings. Eat a small meal or snack every three to four hours to give you sustained energy and keep your blood sugar stable.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed during the holiday season -- what with shopping, parties, decorating, baking, and the inevitable stress of unwanted obligations. But a healthy diet not only helps boost your mood, it also helps you fight holiday weight gain. Try these tips to get through the holiday season in a good mood without gaining weight:

  • Eat breakfast! If you skip it, what you eat for the rest of the day won't matter, Somer says. Breakfast-eaters report maintaining a better mood and more energy throughout the day, studies show.
  • Drink water. "The first symptom of dehydration is fatigue," says Somer. If you're dragging your feet, don't dig in the holiday treats you've been baking. Instead, down a glass or two of water; then see if you're still hungry. Not drinking enough water is the first thing that will impact your mood, Kleiner tells WebMD. "Without it, you won't be able to exercise at peak levels, and you won't burn fat as readily.”
  • Drink nonfat milk. "It has the tryptophan you need for your brain, plus the natural carbohydrate that assists its transport," Kleiner says. "It's also a fabulous energy drink, and an excellent way to rehydrate both before and after exercise."
  • Hit your usual holiday parties, but avoid alcohol. You may feel relaxed in the short term, but drinking interrupts sleep and increases depression and anxiety -- not the best way to boost your mood.
  • Lose the bowls of high-fat foods like chocolate, and replace them with small low-fat crackers, popcorn, pretzels, and hard candy.

Fall and winter tend to increase carbohydrate cravings. “Instead of trying to ignore them or reaching for chocolate, cookies or ice cream, plan portion-controlled carb snacks at least once or twice a day, such as 3/4 cup of crunchy cereal,” Wurtman says. They'll help keep your mood even and your waistline small.

"Alter your eating habits, and you'll notice a change within just two weeks," Somer says. "Your body will reward you with more energy, and your mind with a calmer, positive, more stable mood."

During the stress-filled holiday season, who could ask for more?

Show Sources


Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Food & Mood.

Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet; co-founder of the Adara weight loss centers.

Susan M. Kleiner, PhD, RD, co-author of The Good Mood Diet.

Wurtman, R.J. Scientific American, January 1989: pp 68-75.

White, A.M. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, October 2007; vol 107: pp 1792-1796.

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature: "Top 10 Ways to Boost Your Energy."  

WebMD Medical Reference: “Diet for Depression.”

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