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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Produce adds light to a dark time of year

Produce Perspectives

Ever notice how the produce department is the most cheerful section of the store? It could be the lighting or the bright colors and enticing smells of ripe produce. Those things can make a big difference this time of year.

We've all noticed that animals react to the changing seasons, right? Squirrels collect nuts, deer grow thicker fur. Well, we are no different. When the days are shorter and sunlight is at a premium, many of us like to sleep a little more and our eating increases. For some people it is more than just a mood swing, though—the effects can disrupt daily lives. These people may experience sleep problems, depression, lethargy or behavioral problems. These folks are suffering from seasonal affective disorder.

One of the main causes of SAD is the increase in melatonin. The brain produces more of this hormone when it's dark out—that's one thing that helps people fall asleep. But too much of a good thing—like ramped-up production in the winter—means depression can ensue.

The common wisdom is to spend as much time outdoors during the day as possible. Taking a walk outside during your lunch break can be a big help, even when skies are cloudy. According to a National Mental Health Association study, an hour's walk in winter sunlight is as effective as two and a half hours under bright artificial light. Even arranging your house and workplace (if possible) so that you receive the most sunlight possible can help.

You—or your customers—may want to walk your produce department. Why? Because while increased light, along with daily exercise and counseling all play vital parts in helping to combat SAD, another big part of the treatment is diet. Some considerations for easing this winter ailment include:

  • Increase consumption of nutrient-rich foods—fruit, vegetables, seeds, etc.;
  • Minimize intake of fried food, processed food and saturated fat;
  • Avoid sugar and sweet snacks;
  • Reduce intake of stimulants—tea, coffee, chocolate, alcohol and cigarettes;
  • Keep blood sugar levels steady.

So, we see that even more than the lighting, it's what's in the produce department that gets us in a better mood. Even though we've all heard that eating starchy foods leads to weight gain, these very foods can help us feel more energetic and less lethargic when eaten in moderation.

Researchers have found that foods rich in carbohydrates and low in protein—like the humble potato—boost brain levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps ward off depression. What's more, a 2000 study (R. Markus, et al, Physiology & Behavior) showed that when people under conditions of high stress ate a high-carb, low-protein diet, they felt less depressed. So let your customers know that popping a potato in the microwave on a wintry day can be a great pick-me-up—as long as they don't add any protein to it.

And potatoes aren't the only produce that may be helpful. Bananas, the No. 1-selling fruit in America, have many qualities that can help with moods as well. They are high in B vitamins, which can help calm the nervous system, while their tryptophan content can help folks relax.

If you are going to get out and take that brisk walk during your lunch hour, bananas can help with the energy to do that as well. Their natural sugars and fiber provide a quick burst of fuel.

If your store is located in an area that experiences a long winter, why not help your customers beat the wintertime blues? Install full-spectrum lighting, offer ready-to-eat baked potatoes in the deli or set up a beat-the-blues banana display. Offer classes that address the issue, or partner with the local gym to keep your customers active and eating well.

Mark Mulcahy runs Organic Options, an organic education and produce consulting firm. He can be reached at 707.939.8355 or at

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 12/p. 24

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