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How eating right can make you happy

Eating the right foods at the right times can significantly boost your mood and energy and curb your stress, says Elizabeth Somer, author of “Eat Your Way to Happiness.” Read an excerpt from her book and take a quiz to find out how your eating habits score.

Which comes first: The mood or the food?
How you feel and your weight are a chicken-and-egg match made in either heaven or hell. If you are happy (and I mean really happy, not just on-the-surface, pretend happy), you also are most likely to be leaner.

As people lose weight, their moods improve, or visa versa — as their moods improve, they lose weight. As their moods improve and they lose weight, they cut their risk in half for a whole host of ills, from heart disease to diabetes, in part because they are more motivated to take good care of themselves. But the link goes further than that. Boost their happiness quotient and they lower stress hormones, such as cortisol, and the inflammatory processes associated with disease. Lower stress means people sleep better, think more clearly and have more energy, which are all factors that help them lose weight and stay happy.

Additionally, people with sunny outlooks are more likely to choose healthy foods, which in turn fuel their good moods. They are less likely to get sick, they recover more quickly if they do get sick, they live longer — more than 7 and possibly up to 10 years longer — and they are healthier in those extra years than are people who are either depressed and/or overweight. It works in reverse, too. People who choose foods known to improve mood find it easier to lose weight, cope with stress and sleep better.

The opposite also is true. When people are overweight, they are most likely to feel sluggish, not sexy, tired and depressed. They turn to food — typically the wrong ones! — to soothe the gloom, which adds more weight and stress, disrupts their sleep and drops their mood even further. Poor sleep habits, in turn, increase the risk for being overweight … some studies found by up to 70%. It’s no surprise that people who are sad or downright depressed are twice as likely to be overweight, and people who are overweight are twice as likely to become depressed and anxious and suffer other mental health problems. For example, a potbelly at age 50 more than triples the risk for dementia by the time someone hits the senior years! Those people also are at highest risk for atherosclerosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, memory loss, osteoporosis and dementia.

The trick here is to make that chicken-and-egg scenario work in your favor. You can jump in anywhere in the cycle, put on the brakes and reverse the process, spiraling up out of depression and weight gain and into the sunshine of happiness and a fit figure. Adopt some of the secrets in this book, guaranteed to improve your outlook on life and slim your waistline, and you will feel better, more hopeful, happier and lighter. The better and more energetic you feel, the more motivated you will be to stick with it, the more weight you’ll lose, the better you’ll feel, and so on. I’ve seen it happen for so many people over the years, and I know it can work for you, too.

Janet knows firsthand how changing your diet can turn your life around:

“I was a breakfast avoider for many years, especially when I worked full-time. Or I’d chow down on coffee, muffins and, in my earlier years, cigarettes. Could I have been more unhealthy if I tried?! Then, if that was not enough, lunch was always something from the fast-food places on campus — Mexican, Chinese or the deli. I was so used to dragging myself to work then dragging myself home for a nap, I didn’t even realize how bad I felt. Everyone warned me that once I stopped working full-time I would gain tons of weight, but they were wrong. I took the time off from working as an opportunity to care for myself. I changed most of those unhealthy habits, started eating a sane breakfast and a light lunch, and included more of the feel-good foods that I knew would help me think better and energize my day. You know what happened? I lost 30 pounds! My stress levels went down. I felt so good that I got up the nerve to dive into my passion, which always has been acting. Today I have more energy and am a much happier human being, and it all started by making a few simple adjustments to my diet!”

The happy diet
We not only are what we eat, but certain foods tweak our brain chemistry and help us stay happy, energized and even calm. One example of how what we eat affects how we feel is the relationship between carbs and serotonin. It is no coincidence that we turn to carbs, from pasta to cookies, when we are in a foul frame of mind. Carb-rich foods stimulate the release of a brain chemical called serotonin that regulates appetite, mood and sleep. It makes perfect sense that we crave carbs when we are feeling blue, since these are the very foods that raise serotonin levels and lift our spirits.

Sweets raise levels of another group of brain chemicals called the endorphins. These are the feel-good brain chemicals associated with a runner’s high. Chocolate boosts levels of brain chemicals, like phenylethylamine and anandamide, that give us a euphoric or “in love” feeling. The fats in fish alter brain chemistry in favor of being happier and smarter, while the bad fats in meat clog blood vessels in the brain, which muddles thinking and mood.

Mood also affects the foods we eat (anyone who has soothed their anger with a bag of chips or calmed their nerves with a Long Island Iced Tea can relate to that!). For example, stress raises brain levels of another brain chemical called neuropeptide Y (NPY). This brain chemical turns on our appetites for carbs. We overeat and gain weight, which puts us in a funk that adds further stress to our lives, and the cycle goes round and round. Many of those neurotransmitters control both our mood and our cravings, and, like the proverbial chicken and egg, much of what we eat, in turn, turns on and off those neurotransmitters.

How important your diet is to your mood really crystallized for me when I received a phone call from a reporter in Cincinnati. He had called to interview me on the topic of food and mood. “They call me the office curmudgeon. Can you help me?” he asked. He sent me a three-day example of his diet, which immediately explained why he had transformed from an easygoing guy to a grump. First, the only food to grace his lips before noon was a chain of coffees. A light lunch, more coffee, then a huge evening meal just before bedtime was his normal routine. On weekends, he cut back on coffee, which explained why he battled headaches from Saturday to Monday morning (caffeine withdrawal usually includes a whopper of a headache). He was a living example of how to eat to mess up your mood.

After reviewing the reporter’s diet, I asked him to make a few changes, such as eating breakfast, including a few super mood foods in his daily menu, cutting back on caffeine and sugar and spreading his food intake more evenly throughout the day. Within no time, his reputation as a curmudgeon had fallen by the wayside. He was more agreeable, enjoyed his job more, no longer battled headaches on the weekends and felt years younger. Granted, healthy foods are not always the cure for clinical depression or other major mood disorders, but following the secrets and advice in this book will always help and is often all it takes to get your mojo back!

You must fight for happiness
Maybe you have tried dieting before. Lost weight, regained it. Lost it again, felt miserable, regained it. If you are a bit gun-shy when it comes to another diet, let me soothe your fears. The eating style I’ve laid out in this book works, and it doesn’t work because it makes you miserable and forces you to live on packaged foods or follow some weird food-combining diet that is more of an eighth-grade science experiment than a gourmet meal. The advice in this book is a get-real approach that combines common sense with the latest research and decades of experience.

People lose weight every day. The trick is to maintain the weight loss and to watch your mood rise as the number on the scale drops. You want the joy and the figure to last. That’s what this book is all about.

I promise you it is not only possible to feel good while dieting, it is absolutely essential to long-term success! It’s a whole lot easier to drop pounds and make changes if you are happy, motivated, energetic and empowered. Your body will drop weight faster when you’ve had a good night’s sleep, are able to cope with stress and can think straight. In short, you must feed your brain while you are trimming your waistline. Luckily, I can tell you just how to do that.

The catch
Before I get to the details, let’s get one thing straight right from the start: no one is effortlessly blessed with happiness and thinness. No one aimlessly wanders through life lean and gleeful. People over the age of 25 who say they can eat whatever they want and never exercise, yet stay skinny and joyful, are lying.

Anyone who is blissfully happy and fit works at it. They get real. They take full responsibility and they take action. They work at it every single day, sometimes at every single meal. They organize, prepare and regroup constantly. They plan ahead, make trade-offs, reward their efforts, occasionally keep records of what and how much they eat and monitor their progress. They stock their kitchens to accommodate healthy eating, they surround themselves with people who support their efforts and they practice thinking like a thin person. They push the self-defeating, negative thoughts out of their heads and replace them with positive, affirming thoughts. They nip in the bud each and every slip that might lead them in the direction toward weight gain and depression. Everyone who is fit and happy has earned it!

Not only does taking charge of your health, life, mood and waistline bring you more happiness than you ever thought possible, as well as allow you to finally get a handle on your weight, but it also is the ticket for ongoing success. A study at the University of Missouri investigated long-term happiness by following students who made intentional changes in their lives to be successful, like joining a club. They compared those “take charge” students with other students who also had positive experiences that just happened to them, like receiving a scholarship. All the students felt happier at first, but only the ones who had made the effort to deliberately seek happiness stayed that way long-term. You must work to reap the rewards. The more effort you put in, the greater the rewards and the better you’ll feel — for the rest of your life.

There’s even more good news. I know most people don’t like to change habits, diet or make the effort to exercise. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just watch TV and get thin and happy? Sorry. Ain’t going to happen. You have to put in the effort, but what happy, skinny people find is that the longer you stick with the program, the easier it gets. The longer you follow the secrets in this book, the more likely the changes will become habit.

You deserve the best
You deserve to feel and look your best. You deserve respect and to feel great. You must believe you are worth it or you’ll undermine every attempt you make to re-create yourself, your health, your mood, your weight and your life. You’ll only get there if you make the decision and take the responsibility to make it happen. The steps are simple:

  • First, believe you deserve it.
  • Second, decide you want it.
  • Third, get started.
  • Fourth, keep at it.

That’s what Mary, a retired housewife in Austin, Texas, found. Mary was at least 75 pounds overweight. She wanted desperately to lose the weight yet denied she ate too much. She told me her diet consisted of vegetables, salads, grilled chicken breast and an occasional glass of wine. Mary was lying. Maybe not intentionally, but no one gets that overweight eating broccoli! Mary was in such denial that I finally decided to spend the day with her. The results were anything but surprising.

Mary’s kitchen was a telltale sign that more than vegetables were in her diet. Her fridge and cupboards were stocked with foods that would ruin even Pollyanna’s Little-Miss-Sunshine mood, including butter, sour cream, whole milk, a variety of cheeses, ice cream, Marie Callendar frozen entrees, store-bought muffins and bottles of alfredo sauce. Her cup of coffee in the morning was more half & half than brew. She tossed the remains of our breakfast in her mouth as she loaded the dishwasher, nibbled on organic trail mix all morning while we talked and then ordered the same salad as I did at the restaurant — only she asked for it with dressing, croutons and cheese, while mine had dressing on the side and neither of the other two.

We spent the entire day on our butts, never once doing any type of physical activity. “I’m having trouble with my hip,” she told me, which was her excuse to not exercise. Although dinner was roasted vegetables and chicken breast, the veggies were tossed with almost 600 calories worth of olive oil and the chicken was stuffed with greasy cheese. By the end of the day, Mary had consumed almost 3,000 calories, but she had expended only about 300 calories in the minimal walking we did around the house and from the car to the restaurant. Her 5'5" frame had no other choice than to pocket the extra calories as fat.

Mary’s first step in turning around her mood and her figure was to get brutally honest with herself (with a little help from me). Yes, she really wanted to lose the weight; she wasn’t just giving lip service to that wish. She agreed to toss the excuses, along with the butter and full-fat dressings, and to pick up a food journal. She kept a detailed record for one week of everything she ate and drank. That record was a blaring wake-up call on the habits she needed to fix. From there, we set to work tweaking her diet to fit the 10 tried-and-true secrets to happiness and a leaner body outlined in this book, which include

  • Focus on real food, not processed junk.
  • Follow the 1-2-3 Rule at breakfast.
  • Choose quality carbs and toss the refined stuff.
  • Use the 6% solution to rein in a sweet tooth.
  • Sprinkle the diet every day with a few super mood foods.
  • Include more mood-boosting fats.
  • Accent the positive by taking the right supplements.
  • Include a few of the right vices in the weekly diet.
  • Get smart about which beverages — and how much — to drink.
  • End the day with the right meal.

The last secret — number 11 — is really no secret at all. Mary had to exercise if she was really serious about feeling and looking her best. You do, too. Any diet that tells you otherwise is a con job. Almost everyone who has successfully lost weight and kept the weight off, as well as raised their happiness quotient, exercised. No excuses. Period. But the benefits are so worth it that I promise you this habit is well worth adopting, no matter what your age, limitations or current physical fitness level.

Mary may have had hip problems, but that didn’t keep her from swimming and doing strength training at the gym. She exchanged her excuses and dishonesty for a clear plan for getting her weight under control. By the end of the year, she’d lost 45 pounds:

“Most important and something I wasn’t even expecting is that within weeks of cleaning up my eating act, I noticed that the gray cloud that had been hanging over my head for years began to lift. I started to feel like me again. I like that change even more than the weight loss. I’ll never go back to my old eating habits. It’s just not worth it!”

Excerpted from "Eat Your Way to Happiness" by Elizabeth Somer. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Harlequin.

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