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Food and Mood

Coping with Those Holiday Urges to Binge on Sweets

Holiday binges. It starts with the candy corn of Halloween and continues all the way to the chocolate bunnies of Easter. Those bite size candy bars look so inviting. Just one won't hurt, will it? But it sets off a binge and you can't stop until the whole bag is gone. Then comes the guilt. Why are we so powerless against those sweet little bits of chocolate-coated comfort?

One theory is that carbohydrates stimulate serotonin production and thus eating them is an attempt to self-medicate depression. Studies focused on this link do seem to back this up. High carbohydrate meals raise serotonin1 while fatty or protein rich meals tend to lower it. The type of carbohydrate chosen seems to be based upon it's glycemic index, or how high it causes blood sugar levels to peak. The higher glycemic index carbohydrates like sugar have a greater effect2 on serotonin than starchy, lower glycemic index foods like potatoes.

And it's not just sugar that we crave.

There's chocolate. Certain alkaloids3 have been isolated in chocolate that may raise brain serotonin levels. Scientists now speculate that "chocoholism" may actually have a real biological basis4 with a serotonin deficiency being one factor. Another mechanism5 that has been proposed for why chocolate has such a powerful influence on mood is that chocolate has 'drug-like' constituents including anandamines, caffeine, and phenylethylamine.

During the holiday season there are many opportunities to indulge our sweet tooth and when stress or sadness strike our first impulse may be to pick up a cookie or piece of candy to help us cope. Unfortunately these frequent indulgences can be sources of weight gain, guilt and further depressed feelings. What can one do to cope with these urges? Here are a few tips from the experts:

  • Be honest with yourself about how deep your problems with food go. If overeating has become a way of life you may have an eating disorder that requires professional assistance to overcome.
  • Certain medications can stimulate appetite or blood sugar problems, including those for the treatment of depression and bipolar disorder. Other drugs, both prescription and over the counter, may influence appetite as well. Discuss with your doctor or pharmacist whether any of your current medications may be affecting your appetite for sweets. You may be able to find an alternative that doesn't send your cravings out of control.
  • Become aware of your emotional triggers for eating. The next time you pick up a "comfort food" ask yourself why you are eating it. Bored? Do something you enjoy other than eating. Feeling neglected? Pamper yourself with a bubble bath or a good book.
  • Distract yourself by doing something else. Chances are the craving will pass.
  • One great way to feel better fast? Exercise. Exercise stimulates the feel-better chemicals called endorphins and improves your mood.
  • Drink a glass of water. Sometimes our body mistakes the feeling of dehydration for hunger.
  • If you're hungry, eat, but eat well. Sugar cravings are the strongest when you are hungry. Eat good foods with a promise to yourself that if you want it you may have a dessert after your meal. Chances are you won't even want it once your hunger is satisfied.
  • If you slip, don't beat yourself up over it. You're a work in progress. Mistakes will happen. Dust yourself off and keep trying.
  • Don't completely deprive yourself. Find healthier substitutes for what you're craving. Try eating a sugar free chocolate pudding instead of that large chocolate bar. Or allow yourself a small portion of the dessert that you are coveting so much. No food is totally bad. It's all in how much you eat of it.
  • Be mindful of what you are consuming rather than grazing all day. A food journal can be very helpful.


  1. Rouch C, Nicolaidis S, Orosco M. Determination, using microdialysis, of hypothalamic serotonin variations in response to different macronutrients. Physiol Behav 1999 Jan 1-15;65(4-5):653-7.
  2. Lyons PM, Truswell AS. Serotonin precursor influenced by type of carbohydrate meal in healthy adults. Am J Clin Nutr 1988 Mar;47(3):433-9.
  3. Herraiz T. Tetrahydro-beta-carbolines, potential neuroactive alkaloids, in chocolate and cocoa. J Agric Food Chem 2000 Oct;48(10):4900-4.
  4. Bruinsma K, Taren DL. Chocolate: food or drug? J Am Diet Assoc 1999 Oct;99(10):1249-56.
  5. Benton D, Donohoe RT. The effects of nutrients on mood. Public Health Nutr 1999 Sep;2(3A):403-9.

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