Are sweet holiday treats an effective way to cope with holiday blues? Or is it really true that sugary or fatty foods can cause depression or mood swings?

Depression or mood swings can certainly make those sugary or fatty foods more tempting and put you at risk for over-indulging. People experiencing depression often prefer foods that are “calorie dense” high in sugar or fat. Some believe this is about chemistry that sugar or fat can be a kind of self-medication. Some believe this is about psychology that we tend to prefer “comfort foods” when we feel depressed or stressed. In any case, the holiday combination of increased stress and increased availability of high-calorie sugary or fatty foods can be an unhealthy combination.

The relationship between depression and gaining weight seems to go in both directions. Gaining weight can bring on or worsen depression. And worsening of depression can contribute to gaining weight. But eating sugary or fatty foods probably doesn’t have an immediate effect on mood. If you feel more stressed or depressed after indulging in holiday treats, it probably has more to do with feeling guilty than with changes in your blood sugar or chemistry.

The best strategy for dealing with those holiday food temptations like the best strategies for dealing with lots of other temptations emphasizes ahead-of-time planning rather than after-the-fact guilt. If guilt or self-blame really helped us to live healthier lives, we’d probably all live to 150. But feeling guilty after the fact is not a very effective motivator. Instead, you’ll want to anticipate high-risk situations and plan ahead. Key steps in that plan would include:

  • Being aware of the feelings (depression, anxiety, stress) that make you more likely to over-eat or eat less healthy foods.
  • Looking for alternative ways to manage those feelings.
  • Looking ahead to situations when you’ll face lots of unhealthy food choices.
  • Deciding ahead of time about what you’ll eat and what you’ll avoid.

If you decide ahead of time on a two-cookie limit, then you’ll be motivated to find the two very best ones. And that third (or fourth) cookie is never as satisfying as the first one.

About the Doc

About the Doc

Greg Simon, MD, MPH, is a psychiatrist and researcher at  Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. His research focuses on improving the quality and availability of mental health services for people living with mood disorders, and he has a specific interest in activating consumers to expect and demand more effective mental health care.