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The "Happiness Diet"

The idea that happiness is to be found in eating the right foods is a pretty appealing one. I’m game to try a happiness diet, but first, I say, show me the science!

The 2012 book is called “The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean, Energized Body.” What is that wondrous prescription? It seems simple enough. If you want to be happy, stay away from bagels, egg whites, sugary soft drinks, margarine, soy yogurt, fruit smoothies, canned soup, agave nectar and deli meats. Who says this? Dr. Drew Ramsey, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York. 

The idea that happiness is to be found in eating the right foods is a pretty appealing one. I’m game to try a happiness diet, but first, I say, show me the science. The evidence against bagels, according to Dr. Ramsey, is as follows: “At first bagels boost a person’s energy, but after a few hours you come crashing down looking for another fix in the modern American diet. That crash can cause people to feel irritable, lightheaded or sad.” Really? Has anyone ever studied such a bagel effect? Nope. But there are studies that show a low carbohydrate diet is associated with irritability, tension and depression. MIT researchers have found that carbohydrate intake is one of the factors that controls the brain’s production of serotonin, a chemical that plays an important role in the control of our mood. Starchy foods increase serotonin production, so one could argue that bagels can actually elevate mood. So where then does the idea that bagels wreak havoc with mood come from? Confusion about complex carbs such as found in bagels and simple sugars as in let’s say, doughnuts. A high intake of simple sugars can cause a quick release of insulin that prompts cells to absorb the sugar leaving low levels in the bloodstream. A drop in blood sugar can cause irritability in some people, although this is certainly not universal. 

What about those egg whites? Well here, the problem isn’t what is in them but what is not. The yolk! The claim is that people who don’t eat the yolk because of a fear that the cholesterol it contains is poison for the heart are missing out on omega-3 fats, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and folate which “regulate mood by improving the health of brain cells and contribute to feeling more stable, energetic, and less blue.” Yes, it is true that these nutrients play a role in brain function. But you certainly do not have to rely on eggs to supply them. The omega-3 content of eggs is negligible, and as far as folate goes, an egg yolk has about 25 micrograms whereas a serving of broccoli has 300. But that is hardly the point. 

The point is that diet is a very complicated business and foods are composed of a complex array of chemicals and a suggestion that ten specific foods can interfere with our happiness is enough to make one grumpy. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been eating too much non-organic celery. Dr. Ramsey claims that 57 different pesticides have been found on celery and at “least 12 are neurotoxins, and anything that is toxic for the brain is toxic for a stable well-balanced mood.” Well 57 pesticides may be permissible but that doesn’t mean that they are present on every celery stick we eat. Very few actually are, and they are found in trace amounts. Maybe I should suggest to Dr. Ramsey that he investigate what Snow White fed to the seven dwarfs. Did she sneak some non-organic celery into Grumpy’s supper and keep Happy from eating bagels? Dr. Ramsey seems to enjoy dealing with fables.


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