These are foods that you’re going to have to eliminate or eat only sparingly because they are slow-acting poisons, adversely affecting your moods, energy levels, and overall sense of well being. They also cause you to pack on pounds, especially if you’re taking antidepressants.
If you’re in a low grade, atypical depression (see section on depression), this is the very thing you crave most. It’s also the very thing that will rob you of your energy and sense of well-being. Eating foods high in sugar activates an energy-draining cycle. Let’s say you’ve had a bowl of Frosted Flakes or a fruit Danish for breakfast. This high sugar meal will cause your body to generate an overproduction of the hormone insulin, which helps your cells use the high amounts of sugar that has entered your blood stream. The repetitive high insulin levels reduce your body’s ability to recognize the insulin; therefore your cells can’t use the sugar, so it is stored as fat. The insulin itself increases your hunger for carbohydrates — as well as your cortisol levels. You begin to crave a mid-morning doughnut, and or coffee to give you some energy. Before you know it, you’ve gained weight. Even worse, you’re too frequently tired all the time, and always seeking food to give you more energy. You find yourself eating out of tiredness and anxiety, not real hunger.
Not everyone has such a negative response to sweets, but many people with depression can feel more depressed by triggering intense carbohydrate cravings, which sets you on the vicious insulin cycle. Paradoxically, the more you feed your cravings, the stronger the cravings will become, and the more unstable your mood will be. If you’re trying to improve energy and mental clarity, you must avoid sugar-filled foods altogether. Also, check food labels for hidden sugars in the ingredients such as: glucose, maltodextrin, corn syrup, corn starch, modified corn starch. Foods that are sweetened with honey or fruit juice are also no-nos. They can contain the same or even more sugar as products that have the real thing.
Every time you have a cup of Java or a Coke, or even chocolate, the caffeine triggers a release of the hormone adrenalin, which, among other actions, signals the liver to release sugar into your bloodstream. You get a burst of instant energy from the sugar and adrenalin. But it only lasts about two or three hours before you crash. That little energy boost can leave you feeling drained over the long haul. The result? You crave candy bars and cookies, the very foods you’re supposed to avoid, to get more quick energy. You eat these food and you increase your inflammation and pain.
Caffeine is highly addictive, and it causes instabilities in your blood sugar, which raises your risk of obesity, diabetes, panic attacks, and even seizures (if you are prone to them). What’s more, caffeine stays in your system for about two days, which means it can interfere with the quality of your sleep (which leaves you feeling tired, which causes you to crave caffeine and sugar, etc.). I’ve also found that some of my patients use caffeine as a substitute for exercise. They figure: Why do a workout if I can get a little boost of energy without the time and effort?
WHAT TO DO:
Eliminate or wean yourself off of all foods and beverages that contain caffeine. These include: coffee, tea, caffeinated soft drinks, chocolate, and pain relievers that contain caffeine. If you are using caffeine for migraines, consult your doctor first.
If you’re feeling drained of energy or still experiencing symptoms of depression, the last thing you need is a depressant chemical. Yet that’s what alcohol is, a chemical that slows down your brain function and interferes with normal sleep. One study found that depression was a problem in 70 percent of people who had prolonged heavy drinking habits.
I remember working with a patient whose depression didn’t clear up after therapy and a series of medication trials. After a year on antidepressants, she finally told me that she was drinking heavily with friends on the weekends. I counseled her to stop drinking as an experiment, and restarted the very first medication that we had tried. Within one month, she had a complete response to her antidepressant.
WHAT TO DO:
Avoid all alcoholic beverages (beer, wine, mixed drinks, cordials, etc.). Many of my patients tell me that they are surprised by the improved clarity in their thinking, improved sleep, and improved energy and sexual function that comes from abstaining from alcohol. You can try some nonalcoholic substitutes like seltzer with a twist of lime or splash of cranberry juice. Or you can try nonalcoholic beers, although some of these products can be high in sugar. (Read the label carefully to make sure there’s less than 8 grams of sugar per serving, and of course, balance with protein.)
You will be surprised to notice that you can also stimulate an artificial “high” just by holding and sipping a non-alcoholic drink in a setting where you usually drink alcohol, such as a bar or nightclub. This phenomenon, called conditioned learning, is well documented. Studies have shown that drug addicts who go through a withdrawal syndrome in a particular place, such as the street corner where they regularly bought their fix, will re-experience the same withdrawal symptoms if they go back to that same street corner months after being drug free.
The low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet that became so popular in the 1990s is nutritional suicide for someone with depression. Living on pasta, bagels and bread can intensify your cravings for sweets and can leave you as lethargic as a diet of chocolate éclairs and Oreos.
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. While it’s true that your body breaks down all carbohydrates (whether from a pear, pretzel or cookie) into glucose, the rate at which your body absorbs and breaks down carbohydrates varies tremendously depending on the type of food. Those foods that are broken down more quickly by the body are considered to have a high glycemic index. They enter the bloodstream quickly, raise blood-sugar levels quickly and are more likely to produce an exaggerated insulin response. Your blood sugar levels quickly plunge, and your body goes out of balance leaving you tired and drained. Of course, high sugar foods like cakes and cookies have a high glycemic index, which means they are rapid inducers of insulin. But so, too, are corn flakes, pasta, instant mashed potatoes, and most breads, and of course, candy, sodas and other sweets.
This is probably because the more refined or processed a carbohydrate is, the more its molecular structure has been broken into small particles. These small particles are more easily absorbed and broken down by the body into glucose, which causes a surge in your blood sugar levels, excess insulin release, etc. So eating a pasta meal for lunch can trigger a mid-afternoon slump, which then triggers a craving for caffeine or sugar.
Carbohydrates that are less processed and are higher in fiber, like whole oatmeal, barley, and pears, are digested more slowly by the body and produce more gradual elevations in blood sugar levels. Certain exceptions are fruits and vegetables that are naturally high in the sugar, fructose, such as bananas, raisins, carrots and corn, which also have a high glycemic index.
WHAT TO DO:
Eliminate pasta, bread, white rice, crackers, pretzels and other products that contain flour, corn starch, corn meal, milled corn or other refined carbohydrates. Switch to natural whole grains like barley, wheat bulgur and whole-grain rice. If you find it hard to live without pasta and bread, eat pasta made from whole grain wheat and breads made from whole-grain wheat, pumpernickel, and rye. These have lower glycemic indexes than white breads and more processed pasta. I also recommend limiting your intake of certain fruits and vegetables that have a high glycemic index. Once you’ve reached healthy weight and body proportions, and feel a sustained increased amount of energy, you can add a once weekly serving of refined carbohydrates back into your diet, always balanced with protein. But use your mood and energy level as a cue: If you feel exhausted or moody after a meal, or the next morning, you need to reduce your intake of these foods. If you fall off your healthy eating plan, it may take five days for it to affect your mood.