Psychonutritionist Shawn Talbott, PhD reveals why just a few days of a bad holiday diet can throw your gut and your mood out of whack
If you’re struggling to stay in the holiday spirit this year, it may have nothing to do with worries about paying your credit card bills or the stress of distant relatives coming to town. “You may be feeling out of sorts because your gut is out of balance,” explains psychonutritionist Shawn Talbott, PhD, who is fascinated by the connection between our moods and diets. “Simply put: Indulging in those sweet and savory holiday treats may be causing your gut to send the wrong mood signals to your brain.”
Doc Talbott explains that many health professionals now refer to your gut as your second brain because it determines a big piece of your mental wellness. “Your gut creates most of the serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters responsible for your mood,” he says.
What’s an out-of-balance gut look like? “You may feel bloated and have trouble fitting into your favorite little black dress. Or, you may have occasional diarrhea or occasional constipation. Those could be clues that the wrong signals are going to your brain.”
Which holiday foods help keep your gut (and brain) happier?
This is the time of year when you probably give yourself permission to indulge in things you seldom eat. “But when you fill up on deviled eggs, stuffed mushrooms, gingerbread and fudge, you’re not leaving much room for fiber-rich foods. Research shows that after just a few days on low-fiber diet, the beneficial bacteria in your gut may start to die off,” says Doc. Talbott. “Not eating enough fiber may not only lower your happiness quotient. It may also increase your risk of gaining weight over the holidays.”
No one is saying you must swear off gravy or pumpkin pie. “Moderation is essential. There’s a smart way to indulge in all your favorites without upsetting your gut microbiome.”
Talbott’s suggestions include:
- Bring on the soluble fiber! “Soluble fiber helps to normalize digestion. It can also act as a prebiotic, which means it feeds the good bacteria in our gut. I like soluble guar fiber, available over the counter as Sunfiber, because it has been shown in more than 120 clinical studies to support digestive health without the uncomfortable side effects. It blends invisibly in water. Use it before a holiday party or meal because soluble fiber also triggers the release of satiation-inducing hormones, so you may not feel as hungry.”
- Make veggies your first stop at the buffet table. “Fill up on carrots, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, celery etc. along with fiber-rich dips such as hummus or guacamole. Then help yourself to smaller servings of must-have treats.”
- Dress up your salads and say yes to fiber-rich soups. “Get creative by adding walnuts, pine nuts and/or dried cranberries to your salad. Great soup choices you might find on a holiday menu include those made with pumpkin or butternut squash.”
- Choose fiber-rich side dishes. “Many traditional feasts include wild rice, sweet potatoes and asparagus.”
- Downsize your dessert portions. “Offer to split dessert with a friend or choose bit-sized treats if they’re available.”
- Feed your gut and brain plant-based amino acids. “Amino acids are used by the body for many physiological functions. One amino acid found in matcha – called theanine – has been shown to promote relaxation without causing drowsiness, reduce nervous tension, and help prevent the negative side-effects of caffeine. It’s a great brain nutrient that’s ideal with helping you deal with holiday stress. L-theanine is available over the counter as Suntheanine.”
Doc Talbott concludes, “If sugar cookies make you smile, enjoy them! Just make sure you’re consuming them in moderation and that you’re also getting a minimum of 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day. Being mindful of what you eat during the holidays will help you take better care of your gut and help you stay in a better mood throughout the season.”
Doc Talbott holds a MS in Exercise Science from University of Massachusetts and a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry from Rutgers. He also holds advanced certificates in Entrepreneurship and Innovation from MIT. He is a Fellow of both the American College of Sports Medicine and the American College of Nutrition. As a Diplomate of the International Olympic Committee’s Sports Nutrition program, he has educated elite-level athletes in a variety of sports including at the United States Olympic Training Centers.
He is the author of hundreds of articles and more than a dozen books on nutrition and fitness. His work has been featured in media outlets around the world, including a variety of segments on The Dr. Oz Show, as well as at the White House as part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to fight childhood obesity.