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New Study Says Beating the Winter Blues May Mean Eating Less Sugar

Researchers say it's doubly true if you're prone to depression.
holiday cookies

Winter can really put a damper on your mood, with the lack of sunshine and influx of colder weather. Seasonal Affective Disorder—often referred to by its less scientific term, the "winter blues"—affects an estimated 10 million Americans. But what if we told you there was a way for you to ease some of those symptoms?

According to a new study published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, a team of clinical psychologists discovered that eating added sugars can actually cause depression symptoms to be worse. For many, passing out Christmas cookies to neighbors and friends is something that prompts feelings of happiness, but new research suggests it could be provoking the exact opposite to the recipient.

But don't beat yourself up for having an elevated appetite for the sweet stuff during the wintertime—it's plausible that you're not intentionally wanting to eat all of those sugary cookies and pieces of pecan pie in addition to a couple of glasses of egg nog. Rather, your body may be causing you to crave more sugar due to the effect the changing season has on it.

That's right, the dwindling light and change in sleep patterns can collectively make you more prone to craving sugar and carbs in general, which can effectively trigger metabolic, inflammatory, and neurobiological processes that are associated with depression.

"One common characteristic of winter-onset depression is craving sugar," said Stephen Ilardi, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas and co-author of the study. "So, we've got up to 30 percent of the population suffering from at least some symptoms of winter-onset depression, causing them to crave carbs—and now they're constantly confronted with holiday sweets."

While it's true that sinking your teeth into a sweet treat, like a chocolate truffle or a flaky pastry, initially provides a boost of happiness, too much of it can be just as destructive on your mental health as drinking too much alcohol.

"Alcohol is basically pure calories, pure energy, non-nutritive and super toxic at high doses," Ilardi said. "Sugars are very similar. We're learning when it comes to depression, people who optimize their diet should provide all the nutrients the brain needs and mostly avoid these potential toxins."

RELATED: Here's What Happens to Your Brain When You Drink Alcohol.

One way you can consciously cut down on sugar this holiday season is to be more mindful of how many sweets you're eating. Sydney Greene, MS, RDN, helps to coach her clients on how to eat more mindfully, and through this practice, she encourages them to listen closely to what their body is actually craving.

"Many times when clients cut off or cut down on added sugar for just two weeks they see improvements in skin, digestion, and mood," she says.

As a result, they begin to see a notable shift in their sugar cravings.

"Even more exciting, tastebuds really only need about two weeks to reset sensitivity levels and when clients try to eat sweet foods again many times I hear 'oh yea that muffin was way too sweet,'" she adds.

Greene says that, on average, one cookie from a store-bought cookie dough mix contains roughly 16 grams of sugar, which is equivalent to eating four packets of sugar. Instead, she suggests making your own from scratch, that way you have control over how much of the sweet stuff you swirl into the mix. Imagine, you can cut down the added sugar content in your Christmas cookies this year by half if you really wanted to.

In short, practicing more awareness of how much sugar you're consuming can effectively put you at less risk of experiencing heightened symptoms of depression—especially during the winter season when you're inevitably most susceptible to experiencing a shift in mood. Added sugars can exacerbate these symptoms as well as contribute to a host of other issues, namely weight gain.

A good guideline to follow? The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar (six teaspoons) per day and that men limit themselves to 36 grams (or nine teaspoons).

Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the news editor of Eat This, Not That!, specializing in food and drink coverage, and breaking down the science behind the latest health studies and information. Read more
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