"Sugar, butter, flour." These words and ingredients are at the heart, soul and belly of the Broadway musical, Waitress, and, for many of us, our holiday celebrations. In the musical the lead character, Jenna, "bakes her worries away" while bringing a pinch of sweetness and joy to the lives of those savoring her masterful pies. Unfortunately recent research shows that although a taste of sweetness among friends and family may add flavor and spice to life, too much sweetness can lead to bitterness and depression.
Although cultures around the world have been drooling over pie fillings since the early Romans, those early pies, much like the pies brought over to the New World by the Pilgrims, were mostly meat based. According to the American Pie Council's website, the sweeter apple, pumpkin, sweet potato and pecan pie descendents, that are at the gut and core of modern day celebratory gatherings, did not arrive on the scene until the early 1800's with the arrival of southern sugar plantations and easier access to sugar.
Our craving for the sweetness of sugar dates back much further—over 10,000 years. Humans evolved to crave the fructose in fruits which could be converted to fat to help survive periods of famine. These days, however, our consumption of sugar has exploded and along with it American waistlines. Whereas 200 years ago the average American consumed 2 pounds of sugar a YEAR, today that same average American consumes 3 pounds a WEEK or 152 pounds a year. That is a whole lot of sugar!
The allure of sugared sweetness, especially at this time of year when we are surrounded by nearly continuous offerings of cookies, pies, and pastries, may feel irresistible and for good reason. Research with rats has found that the addictive power of sugar surpasses that of cocaine. In one experiment, rats naive to cocaine and sugar were given the choice between Lever C which offered a quick hit of cocaine, or Lever S which offered sweet saccharine water. Nearly all the rats preferred the sugary water, even if they were previously addicted to cocaine, and even if getting the sugared water required more effort. Modern day processed food manufacturers exploit this evolutionary attraction to sweetness with an ever expanding list of cheaper and sweeter versions of sugar which keep us grabbing for more. Some processed sugars, like the saccharin used in the study, that is also found in toothpastes, diet sodas and "low calorie" pies and candies are 300 to 500 times sweeter than sugar. Another sweetener, sucralose, which is sold as Splenda, can be up to 1000 times sweeter than the cane sugar first cultivated to appease our primitive sweet tooth cravings.
Over the years a growing body of research has shown a connection between excessive intakes of sugar, processed foods and depression. It has been unclear, however, whether depression leads to an increased intake of sugar or if sugar induces depression. A recent large prospective trial, the WhiteHall II Study in London, followed over 20,000 participants over 18 years to elucidate this relationship. The results did not find an increase in consumption of sugar among those with depression, but did find an increased odds of recurrent depression among those consuming the most sugar. The results were particularly profound for men. Those with the highest intakes of sugar had a 23% increased risk of depression.
Just because sugar may increase risk of depression, however, does not mean making dietary changes can improve existing depression symptoms. This question was addressed in the SMILES trial in New Zealand. This study randomized depressed patients to receive either nutritional or supportive counseling. Those in the nutrition group were taught skills in mindful eating and encouraged to follow a Mediterranean type diet full of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and olive oil along with the reduction of sugars and processed foods. 32% of those given nutritional advice improved as compared to a mere 8% of patients offered support, suggesting that indeed making dietary shifts offers a viable and effective treatment strategy for depression.
So as the holidays approach and the apple pies, pumpkin bread, and frosted sugar cookies call to us how can we override our primal instincts to consume more and more and more? We can start by first filling ourselves with healthier choices and then allowing ourselves a holiday treat. Avoidance and restriction over the long run only increase cravings, desire and bingeing.The key instead is to approach your dessert of choice attentively and mindfully.
My son is the Jedi Master of savoring each and every tiny morsel of tasty goodness.He and my daughter will often challenge each other to see who can eat their dessert the slowest. He always wins. I am usually nearly finished with mine when I look over and realize he is reverently still relishing the sweetness of his first bite. I could judge myself (ok, sometimes I do) but as best I can I try to notice and set the intention that next time—this Thanksgiving for sure!— I will try my best to slow down and fully appreciate the dessert in front of me instead of falling into old childhood patterns of scarfing another chocolate Rice Krispy square into my mouth before my father finishes the entire pan. Old habits die hard, but new patterns and habits are always possible.
Mindful eating invites us to slow down and relish each and every bite. See if you can at least set the intention to fully enjoy that first taste. Start by noticing the appearance and aroma of the apple pie before even picking up a fork. Notice the motion of the arm as you start to dig into the pie. Notice the smell as your arm and the treat move closer to your mouth. Perhaps you notice your mouth already salivating. Mine is actually salivating just writing this! As you bite into the dessert notice the texture and splurge of flavors. Notice and savor the taste. Perhaps notice the urge to speed up the process and shove the next bite in your mouth mindlessly. Even if you do, you still have a chance to notice even that, and still slow down and pay full attention to the next bite and the next, enjoying the pie fully, allowing the flavor and comfort of sugar, butter and flour to melt your own worries away as you savor the flavor and the moment.