Confessions of a Sugar Freak

How I made the food-mood connection and eased my fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
By Margaret Adamek, PhD

As far back as I can remember, I was tired. All of the time. No matter how much sleep I got, no matter how much coffee I drank, my fatigue simply overwhelmed me. I had a terrible time waking up. By late morning, I could hardly concentrate on my job. Mid-afternoon brought an intense urge to nap, and by early evening I was ready for bed. I experienced occasional spurts of energy throughout the day—usually fueled by something sweet or caffeinated, but nothing I could sustain. My exhaustion affected my work, my ability to exercise, and my upkeep of personal affairs. Throughout these decades of fatigue, I faced deadlines where I cranked up enough nervous energy to make it through—but then I’d collapse for several weeks.

Feeling exhausted and unproductive was compounded by a low-level depression, which, for me, translated into inertia and a lack of motivation. Because I didn’t cry a lot or stay stuck in bed, I never recognized these as characteristic symptoms. Furthermore, I was forever anxious. With each passing year, my symptoms became more severe, and I began to experience mood swings that made me (and those I loved) miserable. Life was chaotic, unhappy, and unhealthy, even though I looked healthy, slim, and put together. My doctor and a therapist recommended medication for my depression and anxiety, but I felt uncomfortable going the pharmacological route.

Fortunately, around that time some new research emerged in the nexus between nutrition and neuroscience that explained in part what was happening to me. Scientists had already established the “food-mood” connection, linking diet, brain chemistry, and blood sugar regulation. Popular writers generated practical, food-based solutions for some of the most prevalent mood disorders, publishing how-to books that helped people alleviate their symptoms through dietary changes. I thought I was beyond that. After all, I cooked from scratch, ate lots of organic produce, limited my saturated fat intake, and was primarily vegetarian for many years. Yet I also skipped a lot of meals, consumed sweets every day, and relied on a moderate, but constant caffeine fix. My personal breakthrough came when I realized my fatigue, depression, anxiety, and moodiness shared a common root cause. Even though my overall diet was relatively healthy, a few bad habits and a serious sugar addiction were seriously affecting my moods.

Making moderate adjustments in my diet—getting the right amount of protein and complex carbs, reducing my caffeine consumption, staying away from sugar and refined carbs, and keeping a consistent mealtime schedule—eliminated my anxiety and depression, significantly reduced the amount of sleep I needed, and completely transformed my life. For the first time ever, I felt energetic, focused, productive, stable, and happy. Through that journey of discovery, I learned that what and when I eat can make all the difference in the world. The following food-based solutions helped improve energy, lift depression, soothe anxiety, and balance my moods.

Recover your lost energy
If you can’t shake off the cobwebs in the morning or you struggle with the sleepies midday, focus on stabilizing your blood sugar and calming your adrenal glands. According to Oregon naturopathic physician Jennifer Brusewitz, three components of your diet will significantly impact your energy levels: meal frequency, carbohydrate and protein consumption, and caffeine intake. Let’s break this down. Eating three times a day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—is critical. So is timing. Eat within an hour of waking up, and stick to a consistent mealtime schedule, say, breakfast at 7:30, lunch at noon, and dinner at 6:30—every day. That may sound oh-so 1950s, but skipping meals or eating at irregular times means you’ll lack the fuel to keep your blood sugar nice and steady—the key to feeling energetic all day long.

A second dimension to increasing your energy involves making sure you have adequate protein and complex carbohydrates at each meal. Use the “fist” and “deck of cards” analogies—a fistful of complex carbohydrates (oats, skin-on potatoes, yams, whole grain pastas and breads, wild rice, brown rice, quinoa, rye crackers, etc.) and a deck-of-cards-sized serving of dense protein (eggs, pork, chicken, beans, beef, fish, etc.).

While incorporating consistent protein and complex carbs at mealtime will make a huge difference, reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates must also be part of the equation. This doesn’t mean exchanging sugary candies and soft drinks for equal amounts of fruit juice, spritzers, or cane-sweetened treats. It means moving whatever sweets you do consume to mealtime, where they’ll be part of a more complex mix of food, and cutting way back on sweet stuff altogether. If you imagine your body as a furnace, refined carbohydrates burn like newspaper; complex carbs like hardwood—you want that long, steady heat.

Research suggests that caffeine can also keep your blood sugar off balance. The eventual crash that follows a caffeine high leaves many people feeling wiped out. Cut back on your caffeine intake and keep what you do drink confined to meals; you’ll feel more energetic that way. Having a little protein and complex carbs along with your tea or coffee will slow down the sugar rise that the caffeine provokes. People often notice a drastic difference in their energy levels, once they get a handle on meal timing, content, and caffeine intake. Brusewitz says these dietary changes give many of her patients a new lease on life. “They often tell me it’s like they’ve become a completely different person. Food absolutely affects mood, no question.”

Quick Tip
Cinnamon can reduce and stabilize blood sugar levels, say numerous studies. Find ways to get a teaspoon a day in your diet—on your oatmeal, in your herbal tea, in an Indian curry dish.

Deep­-Six Depression
Scientists have found a strong link between depression and diet, and studies have shown that people who report symptoms of depression tend to have lower levels of the brain chemical serotonin. Elevating your serotonin levels through a couple of dietary strategies can alleviate the blues. One way to increase these levels is to maintain adequate essential fatty acids in your diet. Studies show substantial improvement in depressive symptoms (even more than with antidepressant medications) from eating omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold-water fish (like mackerel, sardines, tuna, and wild-caught salmon), flaxseed, some nuts, and hemp oil or seeds. Craig Hassel, PhD, an associate professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota and an expert on fatty acids, says that studies using omega-3 fatty acids to treat depression found a significant beneficial effect on symptoms. And he points out, “Cultures that consume more cold-water fish show a much lower incidence of depression across their populations.” In his book The Omega-3 Connection (Free Press, 2001), Harvard Medical School faculty member Andrew Stoll, MD, explains how the kinds of oils found in cold-water fish not only help boost serotonin levels, but also positively impact stress hormones and the electrical functioning of neurons.

Quick Tip
A handful of walnuts, a spoonful of flaxseed oil on your oatmeal, a tuna fish sandwich, or a piece of grilled salmon will add more essential fatty acids to your diet. Grass-fed meats and dairy products can also augment your EFA intake.

Just as they do with blood sugar regulation, complex carbohydrates and protein affect serotonin production. Whereas antidepressant medications recycle what little serotonin is already in the brain, a healthy diet can actually help you manufacture more serotonin. Your thrice-daily protein serving will break down into tryptophan—the amino acid that eventually converts to serotonin—with the assistance of complex carbohydrates. You can further boost the production of tryptophan with a nightly complex carb snack. While this may seem a bit wacky (what, no cookies and warm milk?) the science behind it is sound: The tryptophan floating in your bloodstream from the day’s protein consumption gets carried into the brain and converted to serotonin, with the help of your insulin system and that carb snack. A side benefit of raising your serotonin? A reduction in cravings for sweets.

Quick Tip
An additional complex carbohydrate snack a few hours after dinner—a small skin-on baked potato or a baked yam (if you’re diabetic)—provides just the right boost to your blood sugar to help your brain synthesize serotonin.

Eat away stress
The whole high stress/harried lifestyle thing is such a cliché—too bad it’s also true. Once again, the brain biochemistry and the endocrine system issues behind that stress cause both short- and long-term emotional and physical problems. While we all have to approach stress reduction from many different directions, using food to create a sense of calm is an effective place to start.

Consuming a lot of sugar, caffeine, and other stimulants (like those contained in energy drinks) can create a constant sense of anxiety in many people, which can overload the adrenal glands. These glands produce the hormones that create our primitive fight-or-flight reaction. That’s great for confronting or escaping sudden danger, but when the adrenals produce a continuous cascade of hormones, particularly cortisol, in response to everyday stress, they set you off on an uncomfortable emotional roller-coaster ride. You end up feeling short-tempered, nervous, angry, or even ill at ease.

Imbalanced brain chemistry shows up as a culprit in anxiety disorders and experiences of stress. Making sure that you drink limited quantities of caffeine—a single cup of tea or coffee with breakfast, for example—can go a long way toward feeling less stressed out. Eliminating caffeine altogether is a good solution for many people; wonderful herbal teas and coffee or teas decaffeinated by water processing are great substitutes. Adding in protein foods that contain high amounts of tryptophan—poultry, milk products, and nuts—can also enhance your sense of calm. Potassium-rich foods like avocadoes, tomatoes, and bananas help support nervous system functioning. Keep those potassium levels up by eating these foods several times a week.

Scientific research corroborates the lived experiences of people like me: What you eat will transform how you feel—for better or for worse. Integrating any one of the dietary changes I’ve outlined above will help you feel better fast. Employing all of them will go a long way in improving your emotional and physical well-being.

Margaret Adamek, PhD, is senior analyst for Local Foods, Sustainability and Wellness at the University of Minnesota.


Mood-Mending Meals

Energy boosters
Breakfast: Eat a couple of boiled eggs and a bowl of oatmeal topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Roll pinto beans, melted cheese, and salsa in a whole grain tortilla. Blend a smoothie made with whey protein powder, milk (nut, soy, rice, or cow’s), a pinch of cinnamon, and fresh or frozen fruit. Munch a couple of rye crackers while sipping the smoothie. Recent research suggests that whey protein powder contributes beneficially to blood sugar control.
Lunch: Put turkey and Swiss cheese on whole wheat bread, and enjoy with carrot sticks on the side. Eat smoked salmon, rye crackers, and a tossed salad.
Dinner: Roast chicken breasts, and serve with skin-on mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli. Stir-fry shrimp with veggies, and serve over brown rice.
Snack: Eat a handful of almonds along with a piece of fruit. Have cheese sticks, along with a whole grain bagel spread with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon.

Depression Lifters
Breakfast: Mix yogurt with fresh fruit and whey protein powder for a smoothie. Add flaxseed oil, which is rich in essential fatty acids, to your morning bowl of muesli.
Lunch: Make a tryptophan-rich grilled cheese sandwich on whole grain bread. Put a tuna fish sandwich in your lunch box along with a handful of walnuts.
Dinner: Roast chicken, turkey, or other poultry, and add a baked potato and tossed salad as side dishes. Grilled salmon with wild rice provides a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids. Grass-fed meats, which are higher in omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed meats, can become hamburgers on sprouted wheat buns. Serve pot roast with carrots and parsnips. Or enjoy buffalo steak kabobs with brown rice.
Snack: Spread cottage cheese on rye crackers. Melt cheese on blue tortilla chips, and daub with salsa. Grab a handful of almonds and raisins. Slather peanut butter on sliced apples. Or enjoy the evening skin-on baked potato with a pat of butter and pinch of sea salt.

Stress Reducers
Breakfast: Try a bowl of unsweetened muesli with a sliced banana and a touch of maple syrup, plus a couple of boiled eggs, a few breakfast sausages, or scrambled tofu on the side.
Lunch: Top a spinach salad with grilled chicken. On the side, have a cup of tomato soup and a whole grain roll. For dessert, eat an apple.
Dinner: Make bean-and-cheese enchiladas with whole grain tortillas. Top with a generous scoop of guacamole and a tomato-based salsa. On the side, have shredded cabbage salad with cilantro and cumin vinaigrette. Finish with a slice of fresh melon.
Snack: Top a sliced peach with a handful of macadamia nuts. Enjoy almond butter slathered on a crusty piece of rye bread.