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Using Food and Movement to Beat the Winter Blues

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 Prime Minister Trudeau said what we’ve all been feeling, “COVID sucks”. We all know we’re heading into a particularly difficult winter, one where we won’t be able to find comfort in seeing friends and loved ones.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) occurs to many of us every winter and this year it’s going to hit harder than ever so here are some ways to ward off the blahs and boost our outlook because, in the words of the mighty House of Stark, ‘winter is coming’.

Amy Symington is a nutrition professor, researcher and chef at George Brown College, Toronto, in addition to holding the role of Nutrition and Kitchen program coordinator at Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto, a not-for-profit cancer organization that provides support to those touched by cancer.

I asked her how food and nutrition can feed into our mood—pun intended. She responded, “Many suffer from mood and mental health changes for a variety of reasons over their lifetimes, particularly during the winter months. This may include, but is not limited to, irritability, anxiety, depression and mood swings.”

We all know that our sleep is impacted when we are stressed and or depressed, so we want to find foods that help support a good night’s rest.

A Mediterranean diet has been shown to be effective in reducing one’s risk of depression as well as improving the quality of sleep. What’s the secret of its success? It’s a well-rounded diet of whole foods, mostly plant-based, that favours fresh produce over processed items.

Nuts, seeds, and whole grains are high in selenium, B vitamins (especially folate and B12) and omega fatty acids that help with brain function. These foods along with leafy greens, lentils, tofu, and tempeh are also high in iron and help reduce irritability which can be caused by anxiety and vice versa.

Magnesium supplements are often suggested to help improve the ability to fall and stay asleep but Amy suggests you look to foods like bananas, avocado, raspberries, and cacao along with the foods mentioned above as sources of magnesium rather than supplements.

What about foods that make things worse? A lot of these just happen to be the very foods that many turn to for comfort or stress relief— like cakes, cookies, chips and other snack foods which are full of sugar, highly refined and processed. We’re all familiar with the ‘sugar crash’ which leaves us feeling fatigued and can impact our alertness.

Other items to limit include caffeine and alcohol. Both may help us feel better in the moment but they interfere with our sleep so the actual effects are negative. Plus, alcohol is a known depressant and can interfere with the chemicals and neurotransmitters in our brain and which no one wants.

The other way to boost our mood, says Amy, is by ensuring we get an adequate amount of physical activity, and for more help in that area I called up MJ Shaw, owner of Soul Fuel Fitness in Toronto’s west end and one of the most positive people I know.

MJ agrees that exercise is one of the primary ways to counter depression and anxiety advising that we can create dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps us experience pleasure, ourselves without pharmaceuticals. We can recreate that chemical shift just by moving our bodies.

PriyaRaoMJteaching1What if we don’t have the energy to work out? There is, what she calls, a ‘5 minute entry point’, which is really a battle against yourself. That’s the time it takes to put on your workout clothes, set up your space and your computer, if doing online workouts, and to basically overcome the demon on your shoulder convincing you to just stay on the couch and watch TV.

Once you actually start moving, studies have shown that it only takes thirty seconds before you’re in the game. That’s a pretty quick turnaround!

But how to battle that demon? One thing you can try is to find a mantra you can repeat to yourself, whether it’s that you will look better or feel better once you get moving. Tell yourself you are just one workout away from being in a better state mentally, emotionally and physically.

Go easy on yourself, don’t try to go full throttle as that can lead to disappointment and feelings of failure which is the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve. If you feel you can only operate at thirty percent then do that and build up over time.

When COVID shut down gyms, many pivoted and began offering online classes. The beauty of these group classes is that no one is judging you but yourself. You can turn off your camera and stop worrying about what you look like or whether you’re keeping up with the rest of the group.

One thing I appreciate about MJ’s approach is the anti ‘no pain, no gain’ sentiment. Pain, means ‘NO’. “You can hurt yourself and get discouraged if you push too hard.” Give permission to take a break or back off a bit and do your best to stay in the game. It does not have to be, “let’s go, go, go.”

I was disappointed to hear that sixty-seven percent of Canadians don’t meet their movement requirements for health and wellness. “Gyms are here for those people. There are gyms that do not target gym rats, even though they may have advanced classes.”

Classes typically range from gentle stretching to HIIT (high intensity interval training) so there’s an entry point for anyone.

Exercise will make you will feel more energized physically and more positive mentally. And what about the old ‘I don’t have time to work out,’ excuse? To that MJ laughs and asks how much time you spend on Netflix or social media. Time is never the issue. Plus, for every minute you work out you are adding 1-7 minutes to your life so you are actually gaining time.

Thanks to soulfuelfitness.ca For recipes and further nutritional inspiration, visit ameliaeats.com To order Amy’s cookbook, The Long Table gildasclubtoronto.org/the-long-table-cookbook/

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