People are consuming "emotionally loaded food and lots of sugar. They're eating erratically, they're eating at other people's whims, and they're not paying attention to what they're eating." She describes emotionally loaded foods as ones that trigger certain emotional states, like the molasses cookies your grandmother used to make. You make them, eat them to achieve some state of memory or to honor her. "It's not what you're eating," Fekety says, quoting a nutritionist friend of hers, "it's who you're eating. It's not just about nourishment. People think it's possible to create an emotional state by eating something. It doesn't work. You might as well skip the cookies and try to remember the feeling."
She also urges against the "exercise bulimia" attendant around the holidays. You go ahead and have an extreme pig-out feast bonanza, cocktails, Brie, mashed potatoes, big red roast, seven iced cookies, and go for a punishing nine-mile run the next day — or spend two hours on the elliptical at the gym. "That combination is really hard on the body," Fekety says. "It sends a very confusing message."
She suggests a 30-minute walk instead. Not only does the movement help with sugar processing, it can remove you from a noxious family situation as well.
In the eating department, sugar ranks high on Fekety's culprit list. "You get an emotional lift from it," she says. "But after that initial high, your neurochemistry reverts and people become depressed." When you burst into tears and have no idea why, "that's sugar talking." When approaching a situation where lots of sweets and rich foods will be on offer, Fekety recommends that you "a) enjoy it and b) have it on a full stomach." If you hit a buffet with an empty belly, you'll eat more and your body will have to work harder to process it. "Two things to protect yourself from alcohol and sugar are protein and green veggies."
Yet alcohol can also serve as means of protection in and of itself. "I definitely drink more" at this time of year, says Wyatt-Jameson. Does he find that it compounds the low spirits? "It alleviates it," he says. "Drinking is an important in the concept of Christmas as an adult. As a kid you get Yoda figures. Now, it's the exchange of bottles of booze. I drink cognac with my dad on Christmas morning now — it's built in the ritual of Christmas itself." And it serves as a means of coping and escape.
What's particularly hard about the holidays is that there's no single trigger, and no single solution to the sadness. "The packaging is so light and bright when what you're feeling is a much darker thing," says Wyatt-Jameson.
Remember the simple things, says Fekety. "Even the biomedical science is coming back to the stuff your grandmother told you. Get your sleep. Eat your vegetables. Go for a walk."
Besides drinking, how else does Wyatt-Jameson get through? "It's once a year," he says. "I remind myself that seasons change."