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Home Plate: Comfort Foods Fight Depression

Home Plate: Comfort Foods Fight Depression

40 million people across the nation have been diagnosed with anxiety-related disorders, half of which suffer from depression. And while neurologists and psychiatrists across the nation continue tinkering with the brain, the usage of antidepressants continues to climb, tripling in the last decade. It’s time to take a look outside of the brain and into its environment: the body.

When the body is well fed, it is well behaved. However, our eating habits have made it nearly impossible to keep the body in balance. Omega-3’s are a prime example. Omega-3 fats, derived from fish, wild game and wild plants, are essential for creating a healthy brain and cells. In the last 150 years, however, we can see a dramatic shift away from Omega-3s to refined Omega-6 inflammatory oils (corn, soy and safflower oils). In fact, the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fats in our diets has increased from 1-to-1 to 20-to-1.

Food feeds the body, so it is only logical to conclude that nutrition influences the mind and subsequently our emotional health, through the body. It would make sense then that the only way to ensure sound mental and emotional health would be to do away with anything that doesn’t scream “This is healthy!” Out with cookies, begone potato chips, away meatloaf! It is only celery stalks and cream cheese from this day on! …Or do our comfort foods play an essential part to our well being that we have overlooked in our quest for health and better sanity?

Jordan Troisi, a graduate student at the University of Buffalo, and lead author on the study of social surrogates—non-human things that make people feel like they belong—has raised interesting questions on human relationships. Troisi and his co-author Shira Gabriel, found that some people counteract loneliness by bonding with their favorite TV show, building virtual relationships with a celebrity or a movie character, or by looking at pictures and mementos of loved ones. Could comfort foods have the same effect? Think about it. When we eat comfort food, what is satiated? Our spiritual wellness? Our psyche? Dare I say, our souls?

Our favorite foods are always trenched in our memory, tied to positive events and happy moments from the past—ice cream on hot summer afternoons, mashed potatoes from the family dinners of your childhood, root beer floats shared at the local hangout, or pizza parties at the end of little league baseball season—that we are allowed to revisit with each bite. When we consume our favorite foods, the brain kicks into high gear. Salty foods give us a boost of Oxytocin aka “chemical cuddle” (Oxytocin is released during hugs and during orgasms, hence the name) and sugary foods release serotonin, a neurotransmitter that increases a sense of well-being. Jordan Troisi and Shira Gabriel in their study show that comfort foods are akin to our favorite t-shirt, television show, or album that we cannot live without—a reminder that we are not as alone as we feel.

However we cannot ignore the obvious—overeating, binge eating, and obesity. How do we balance this tightrope buffet of much needed comfort and much needed health? Talk shows like The Dr. Oz show warn us of the dangers of saturated fats and empty calories, which have us feeling guilty right after we have consumed that bag of chips. It seems in this health conscious world we live in that the only solution is the simplest: compromise. By taking the ‘guilt’ out of comfort foods, we are giving ourselves the best of both worlds, so let’s start by removing the stigma of what is arguably America’s favorite comfort food.

Countless surveys have ranked America's tastiest unhealthy treats and the greatest hits have ranged from Indian fry bread to Mom’s meatloaf, but only one treat reigns supreme: The mighty potato. Au gratin, mashed, or just plain fried, it is the must have for every American. So let’s set the record straight. Lately, potatoes have been getting a bad rep from health enthusiasts as harbingers of fattening starch but this misconception is far from the truth.

A medium potato (5.3 oz) eaten with its skin on:

  • has just 110 calories
  • has nearly half your daily value of vitamin C (45%)
  • is one of the best sources of potassium (614 mg) and fiber (2 g) in the produce section. (Did you know potassium helps maintain normal blood pressure?)
  • is naturally fat-free and sodium-free
  • contains many of the nutrients the Dietary Guidelines recommend Americans increase in their diets

Potatoes are healthy, what we do with them, on the other the other hand, isn’t always the case. Obvious alternatives for boosting your health while still indulging your comfort food craze are choices like swapping olive oil for butter on that baked potato, or cutting back on how much cheese you smother over your fries. Other choices include mixing the simple carbohydrate with a protein to slow the release of sugar. Comfort foods are here to stay, and they serve a much needed purpose, but so do their leafy green counterparts. Only in having a better understanding of both our brain and body’s chemical reactions to each can we start to keep ourselves in harmony. So, next time you feel yourself going for your favorite foods, eat the treat and leave out the guilt.

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