Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and, while we may long for a day of candlelit love, laughter, and togetherness, we all know the reality will probably be less sepia-toned. For many people, this season is a time of anxiety, irritability, and maybe even depression.
You assume that the holiday blues arise due to conflicts with family members and past issues reasserting themselves—and surely that is part of it. But another (often overlooked) source of your bad mood may be something you never even considered: the guest of honor sitting at the center of the table.
That’s right. Your turkey.
“Turkey has always been the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal, so most people never even question its presence,” says Mary Wendt, MD, founder of www.getwaisted.com and author of “Waist Away: How to Joyfully Lose Weight and Supercharge Your Life.”
“Unfortunately—as odd as it may sound—there is a fair amount of evidence that consuming poultry can negatively affect your levels of happiness.”
You may have experienced firsthand the crash that follows eating a big serving of turkey: the traditional main course of Thanksgiving dinner. You may also have heard that tryptophan, an amino acid present in turkey meat, is to blame for this tired and listless feeling.
Research published in the American Journal of Health Promotion in March/April 2015 suggests that different protein sources can dramatically affect a person’s mood.
To be clear, tryptophan is not the enemy. In fact, it is a precursor for producing serotonin. Some experts believe that higher serotonin (sometimes referred to as the “happiness drug”) levels in the brain reduce the effects of depression.
However, Wendt says it’s probably better for us to get our tryptophan from plant sources. Why? Because tryptophan gleaned from animal sources has been found to lower tryptophan levels in the brain.
Though this seems paradoxical, the downside of turkey consumption is that even though turkey is rich in tryptophan, it doesn’t cross into the brain. In other words, eating turkey actually decreases the amount of this essential amino acid in your brain.
As a result, eating turkey might actually be harming your brain’s ability to produce (desperately needed!) serotonin and may thus contribute to the holiday blues so many experience each year.
Bottom line? It’s probably a good idea to cut out the turkey. But don’t worry; there are plenty of plant-based foods on the Thanksgiving table that actually increase tryptophan and serotonin levels. So try this experiment: This year, focus on delicious seasonal vegetables, fruits, and grains and see if you feel a difference in your mood.
Here Are Six Ways You Can Enjoy a Meat-Free Holiday Meal:
1. Focus on carb-y foods that help you stay full and satisfied. Have an extra-large serving of winter squash, sweet potatoes, or mashed potatoes with a vegetable-based gravy. These foods provide the all-important “satiety” effect that makes meals satisfying. Avoid the processed carbs, like dinner rolls.
2. Pile your plate with salads and raw vegetables. Add some green beans and other cooked vegetables if you like, too. Fruits and vegetables are chock-full of serotonin. And serotonin, when obtained from plant sources, doesn’t contain any inflammatory arachidonic acid.
3. Choose lots of seeds and nuts. Pumpkin seeds have one of the highest tryptophan-to-protein ratios on the planet. Tryptophan from nut sources increases serotonin levels in the brain. Other nut sources of tryptophan include sesame, sunflower, and squash seeds.
In one study, consuming squash seeds significantly reduced the effects of social anxiety. Numerous other studies link plant-based diets with higher self-esteem and happiness. Many of these studies documented improvement within two weeks. This holiday season, save the seeds from your butternut squash and pumpkins and roast them in the oven for a mood-boosting treat!
4. Just get stuffed! Stuffing, especially when it’s made with plenty of celery, onion, and vegetable broth, is nutritious and filling. It also packs a nice boost of serotonin in each bite. Choose whole-grain croutons if you can find them (or make your own!) for the most filling option.
5. Enjoy extra dessert. Serve yourself a bigger piece of pumpkin pie. Eat the custard and leave the crust behind to avoid consuming a big serving of white flour and fat. (Wendt says her pie-eating patients have dropped their cholesterol by 40 points in just three months simply by not eating pie crust.)
6. If someone else is cooking, offer to bring along a dish. (And make it a healthful one!) If you’re surrounded by unhealthy choices, consider starting a new tradition with a new dish. Whole-grain rolls, spiced cranberry sauce, green beans cooked in garlic and a bit of olive oil, or roasted nuts make excellent additions to the table and can help restore health to the members of your Thanksgiving family.
Wendt says that there is a cornucopia of health-related reasons why a plant-based diet is beneficial—beyond the tryptophan issue. She actually recommends going vegan (or near-vegan) all year round. If you’re open to this idea, she says you can use Thanksgiving as your “trial run.”
“You may be surprised to find how filling and satisfying a plant-based diet really is,” Wendt concludes. “Plants contain all the fat, protein, and carb-y comfort anyone needs to feel satisfied and content. And if you can indulge and thrive in this way on the most food-centric holiday of the year, you can certainly do it all year long.”
Mary R. Wendt, MD, is the founder of Get Waisted and the author of “Waist Away: How to Joyfully Lose Weight and Supercharge Your Life.” To learn more, please visit www.getwaisted.com.