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18 December 2006
Christmas: Eat Yourself Sane
by Serena Mackesy

Christmas, with all its related stresses of high expectation, enforced proximity, lack of exercise and families' tendency to cast their members in roles so that the fortysomething CEOs of multinational corporations can still find themselves relegated to the status of adolescent rebel, is one of the big flashpoints of the year. A time when relationships are as likely to be severed as healed, and otherwise civilized adults can find themselves brandishing carving knives with their teeth bared, or curled up weeping in a corner.

Thing is, it's not all psychological. If your Christmas is beset by out-of-character behaviors, some of it could be down to the stuff you're shoving in your gob. So, it's quite likely that you could exert a bit of control over the worst of it with a few not-too-onerous dietary adjustments.

This isn't one of those "have healthy Christmas" articles; God knows, we get enough finger-wagging about food the rest of the year. Interestingly, a British study from 2001 concluded that the mood effects from the foods we eat were as much related to our attitudes towards them as to any of the physiological effects of the food.

So, number one. You're going to overeat at Christmas. Stop stressing about it. Because, number two: people who are normally restrained around food are much more likely to overindulge in salty, fatty, sugary snacks than unrestrained eaters when under stress. Basically, stress about your food intake and you'll eat more. So then you'll be fat and stressed, rather than merely fat.

What else can you do? Well, the common irritable fatigue many people complain of is likely a symptom of combined dehydration and erratic sugar levels. As a general rule, our consumption of alcohol and salt goes way-up over Christmas and many people also "treat" themselves to far more in the way of fizzy drinks like Colas at this time of year than they would do normally. Colas, of course, contain caffeine - a diuretic if you're not in the habit of consuming it regularly - and heaps and heaps of sugar, which causes your blood-sugar levels to fluctuate. The result? Overwhelming exhaustion.

Also, make sure you keep up your water intake. Researchers have shown that consuming a combination of fruit juices that your body isn't used to in combination with caffeine, surprisingly, seemed to improve mood. So, start your day off with a glass of persimmon and mango and a double-espresso, and you'll be setting yourself up well for the trials ahead.

It's a good idea, also, to postpone eating the main Christmas meal until the evening. It's a bulky feast and takes some digesting. Instead? There's quite a body of evidence that Omega 3 oils are extremely effective in combating depression. Have fish for lunch. Smoked salmon is great. Shellfish - crab particularly - contains generous doses of selenium, a mood-enhancing mineral in which most of us are deficient. Oysters, frisky little bivalves that they are, contain the entire gamut of vitamins apart from C. If you're doing Christmas a deux, a dozen oysters each and you'll be heading for bed for anything but a sleep. And for a selenium-boosting snack, Brazil nuts are like little magic bombs.

As to the main event: you know what? A little fat does us good. While, obviously, it's not such a great idea to soak our entire daily diet in beef suet, the combination of fat and carbohydrate is a potent one when it comes to both raising our mood and our mental performance. That's why we like fries. They don't just fill us up, they make us feel good. In terms of joyless bad temper, the person to watch out for is the person who turns down the roast potatoes and peels the skin off their turkey. The combination of moral superiority and low-fat is a pretty vicious one.

In terms of poultry, dark meat, contrary to common belief, is better for you than white: being the muscular part of the bird, it has a higher iron content and a lower fat content than the breast; and, given that caffeine can block your uptake of iron, you need all the help you can get if you're still insisting on washing it all down with a quart of Pepsi.

It's also a good idea to pile your plate high with the much-maligned sprout: aside from their wonderful vitamin content, brassicas are pretty good at detoxifying your system, which will give you a bit more leeway on the salty snacks. Oh, and, by the way, never cook a brassica for more than seven minutes, which is the magic moment when they start to release the sulfur that puts most people off them. Cooked for less than seven minutes, all brassicas are as sweet as nuts.

And what about chocolate? Well, yes. As long as it's dark, and not, therefore, going to sugar you to death. Chocolate is one of the most effective mood-enhancers you can get, as it gives you a nice little endorphin rush. For added endorphins, de-seed some chillis, dip them in dark chocolate and keep them in a bowl in the fridge for snacking. I always serve them at the end of dinner parties, and it's like pumping people up with little shots of rocket fuel.

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