Natural Foods Merchandiser

Foods That Feed Your Head

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"It's coming on Christmas, they're cutting down trees. They're puttin' up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on."

Actually, if Joni Mitchell had tried loading up on the omega-3 fatty acids, cutting back on the simple sugars and maintaining a healthy intake of complex carbohydrates, she might have been content to stay put.

Of course, then the world would have been without her soulful lament about the holiday doldrums. But the point is, foods contain some of the most important influences on the brain chemicals that can make or break our moods—and many of the helpful ones can be found right on natural foods stores' shelves.

And, amid the frenzy of the season, there is perhaps no time when such stores are more valued as a sane haven away from dietary follies, and a place where foods may be found that can refresh a weary—and possibly woeful—spirit.

If some of the strongest science is followed, customers seeking a sustainable attitude adjustment should be directed past the bakery's welcoming comfort foods to the seafood department. There, customers will find fish containing high concentrations of what some assert to be nature's answer to Prozac—omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3s have been well established as protective of the heart and possibly helpful in ailments ranging from arthritis to diabetes. But a newer wave of research also shows promising benefits for attention deficit disorder and depression, and has resulted in a new nickname for omega-3s: "the happy fat."

"There is very strong epidemiological evidence on the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids to mood," says Joseph R. Hibbeln, M.D., chief of the outpatient clinic at the Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Md.

Hibbeln was lead researcher on a study published in 1998 showing that rates of depression in countries where large amounts of fish are consumed were significantly lower than in countries where fish was not a dietary staple.

In subsequent studies, researchers found that people with bipolar disorder showed remarkable improvement after taking regular doses of fish oil supplements, compared with a control group not given the supplements.

For the highest concentrations of omega-3s in foods, Hibbeln suggests either taking fish oil supplements or eating dark, oily fish. "Salmon, herring, mackerel, rockfish, tuna and sardines are probably the richest sources of omega-3s. White fish and crustaceans have slightly lower levels of the fatty acids, but they are still highly beneficial," he adds.

Customers not quite ready to ditch traditional meat or poultry entrees for fish can slip omega-3s into holiday menus in a variety of other ways—smoked salmon, or shrimp-and-avocado hors d'oeuvres, for instance, can be festive party favorites as well as sources of mood-enhancing omega-3s.

For alternative, albeit secondary, omega-3 food sources, nuts—especially walnuts—and leafy green vegetables are good choices, and even eggs are rich in omega-3s, says Hibbeln.

Omega-3s aside, traditional "comfort foods," often rich in carbohydrates, can also play an important role in beating the holiday blues by temporarily lifting levels of the mood-enhancing brain chemical serotonin.

The key to reaping the most benefits from comfort foods is keeping those carbohydrates complex, says nutritionist Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains and brown rice, have a longer release than such simple carbohydrates as sweets or gummy bears, which might offer just a short lift," she says.

For a mood-boosting holiday snack, the bakery could offer a high-fiber holiday muffin made with whole-wheat flour and perhaps some dried fruit, Bonci says. "It's cheery and festive, but it's a comforting food that can indeed have an effect on serotonin levels and possibly help with a low mood."

As an alternative to chocolate cake, rich in simple sugars, perhaps serve up pumpkin pie with a nut crust. "It tastes a little better than the flour-based crust, and you're getting a few extra omega-3s in there as well," Bonci notes.

Diets that restrict carbohydrates may increase in popularity over the holidays by offering a virtual free pass on meats, poultry and fats, but Bonci cautions that such diets may satisfy the appetite, but shortchange the mind. "Carbohydrates boost your mood by lifting serotonin levels, so cutting them out of your diet can, conversely, have the opposite effect, sending serotonin in a decreased direction," she says.

For naturals retailers to be addressing depression may seem out of sync with the joy-to-the-world commercialism everywhere else in retail. But outside of malls the topic looms like a perennial mistletoe, popping up everywhere from Charlie Brown's disillusioned Christmas to annual segments on shows such as TV's 20/20.

"Any time the mass media focuses on a topic to that extent, you want to be that resource, that solution that people think of to get ideas and information," says Marty Baird, founder of Phoenix-based Nutritional

And depression isn't just media hype: The National Institute of Mental Health reports that nearly 19 million Americans—or a stunning 9.5 percent of the adult population—experience a "depressive disorder" in a given year.

"To meet customers' needs, natural foods stores can take an educative role, perhaps with materials that are educationally driven, maybe saying something such as, 'Here are five ways to identify depression,' " Baird says.

With just a little creative tact, retailers can take on the topic in an upbeat manner and without being offensive, Baird adds. "Retailers can take a positive spin with suggestions such as, 'Here are four things that might help brighten the holidays.' Offer information in a consultative and supportive way and perhaps provide customers with ideas on how nutrition might make them feel better," he says.

At Seattle's PCC Natural Markets, customers get that kind of nutritional support not only via informative newsletters but also through a Web site boasting a virtual library of articles.

While PCC's customers, by nature, seek health-conscious choices, the evocative spirit of culinary traditions and remembrances of Christmases past can ultimately be the most sought-after mood-enhancers of all, says Trudy Bialic, store spokeswoman. "Around the holidays, there's an overwhelming sense that people still want their fun foods, their comfort foods, the foods that remind them of family and tradition," she said.

"The trick is to find the ingredients and the foods that support that interest in their health."

That, ultimately, can provide a boost toward cheerier holiday spirits.

Nancy Melville is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Ariz. Contact her at [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 10/p. 22, 24, 26

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