Fats, Sugars, and Beating the Holiday Blues – Structure House NC

Tips for Beating the Winter Blues


While the holidays are a time of joy and fellowship for some, they often lead to bouts of depression for others.  Do you suppose it has anything to do with indulging more frequently in foods that are high in fat and sugar?

Just ask yourself, how do you feel after you have consumed your third piece of pie or gone back for seconds of an enormous holiday spread? You might not be overly pleased with yourself. But could unhealthy dietary habits predispose you to the “Holiday Blues” or even clinical depression over time? Recent research suggests that they might.

In an ongoing study of UK civil servants, researchers wanted to find out if diet might be associated with future depression1. They found that women who ate a whole foods diet (more vegetables, fruits and fish) were about 60% less likely to experience recurrent depression symptoms over a 5-year period than those who ate a processed diet (sweetened desserts, fried foods, processed meat, refined grains, and high-fat dairy).

Another study of 1000 Australians arrived at the same conclusion. Women who ate a “western” diet (processed foods, fried foods, refined grains, sugary products, and beer) were more likely to develop depression and anxiety over a 5-year period than those who ate a “traditional” dietary pattern (vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, whole grains)2.

How might this association between overall diet and development of depression over time be explained? Previous research has suggested a link between inflammation and depression. Healthy amounts of inflammation help our immune systems fight disease and recover from injuries. But excessive inflammation has been linked to conditions such as heart disease, strokes, diabetes and cancer.

Only recently has a possible link between an inflammatory dietary pattern and depression been specifically researched3. The researchers tracked the diet habits and health outcomes of over 43,000 women who were free of depression at the beginning of the study. Those who regularly drank sugary sodas, ate red meat or refined grains and infrequently consumed green leafy and yellow vegetables, wine, and olive oil over a 12-year period were 29-41% more likely to become depressed than those who ate a less inflammatory diet. Blood tests revealed that the women who ate more inflammatory foods also had significantly higher levels of the biomarkers for inflammation that have been previously associated with depression. So, chronic inflammation does appear to underlie the link between diet and depression.

These and many other studies show an association between dietary quality and depression. As encouraging as these findings seem, we really don’t know for certain if improving dietary quality might reduce the risk of depression4 or can help with recovery from depression. Many individual factors such as personal circumstances, genes, and other lifestyle behaviors also play a role.

But preliminary findings are promising enough that governments and the research community are taking action. A randomized, controlled trial is underway in Australia to determine if a dietary program can improve recovery from depression5. Each individual in the intervention group is participating in a series of individual counseling sessions with a dietitian to encourage and facilitate healthier eating while continuing to take medication. Blood tests of study participants might help strengthen the link between diet, indicators of inflammation, and symptoms of depression. The results of this study are eagerly awaited.

Europe has hopped on the band-wagon, too. The European Union has launched the 9 million euro MoodFOOD project to explore how improving food-related behavior and nutrition status might prevent depression6. Then they will develop nutrition guidelines and practical tools to guide policy. Extensive promotion throughout Europe is intended to lower the risk of depression and improve overall health of all European citizens.

Depression, appears to also be a disease of the body and not just the mind. Replacing processed, high-saturated fat and sugary foods with vegetables, fish, olive oil, and whole grains lowers our risk of chronic disease. There’s a good chance that such dietary measures may also benefit our emotional health, thus diminishing those Holiday Blues. So as we enter the season of joy and thankfulness, be mindful of your eating and make sure fitness remains a part of your daily routine.


The Author

Marlene Lesson, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., C.D.E. has been the Nutrition Director at Structure House since 1983. She conducts workshops on such topics as Healthy Dining Out, Supermarket Sleuths, Turn Off the Fat Genes and Fat Cells Behaving Badly. As a registered dietitian and a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, she participates in several of the academy’s practice groups. She has a graduate degree in Human Nutrition and Foods from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and an undergraduate degree in liberal arts from the University of Maryland. She is credentialed as a Certified Diabetes Educator through the National Certification Board of Diabetes Educators.

The Program

Structure House is a residential weight loss facility that is located in Durham, North Carolina. We offer a unique, effective approach to weight management and lifestyle change. We integrate scientifically supported principles of nutrition, exercise, and psychology to help our clients adopt behaviors that will contribute to a healthier and more satisfying way of living.

Structure House Weight Loss


  1. Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. Akbaraly et al. Brit J Psych, 2009.
  2. Association of western and traditional diets with depression and anxiety in women. Jacka et al. Am J Psych, 2010.
  3. Inflammatory dietary pattern and risk of depression among women, Lucas et al. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 2014.
  4. The association between diet quality, dietary patterns and depression in adults: a systematic review. Quirk, Jacka et al. MC Psychiatry, 2013.
  5. A randomized trial of a dietary intervention for adults with major depression (the “SMILES” trial): study protocol. Jacka et al, 2013.
  6. MoodFOOD is a Multi-country collaborative project on the role of diet, food-related behaviour, and obesity in the prevention of depression, 2014-2018.
November 10, 2017 | | Tags: , ,

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