Healthy Holiday Eating

Season’s greetings from the practice of Aileen Burford-Mason PhD and DRS Consulting. Aileen and Clela wish you all the joys of the holiday season, and health and contentment in the coming year.

In this issue

  • Healthy eating for the Holiday Season
  • The dairy fat controversy
  • Recipe: Baked spiced pears

With the holiday season in full swing, it’s often difficult to navigate the sea of tempting foods that are part and parcel of festive gatherings. From sugary treats to savory snacks laden with salt, bad fats and artificial additives, the impact of these foods extends far beyond that tired and bloated feeling after overindulging, or the extra pounds we might pack on over the next month or so, but also influences brain health. In this issue I focus on the research that shows how regular consumption of ultra-processed and sweet and starchy foods in-creases the likelihood of mood disorders, particularly in teenagers.

Healthy eating for the holiday season

In our fast-paced world, convenience often takes precedence over the nutritional value of the food we eat. Time constraints frequently means resorting to an excess of take-outs or fast foods, most of which are considered ultra-processed.

As we discussed in our August newsletter, ultra-processed foods are basically factory altered foods which use many industrial ingredients and additives – chemical compounds that would not normally be found in any home kitchen. Such foods lack the essential nutrients found in whole, minimally processed foods – the fibre, vitamins and minerals and other trace compounds (phytochemicals) we need to maintain health. In addition, they are generally high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats.

The rise of ultra-processed foods is a cause for concern, not only for our physical health but also for the well-being of our brains. So, let’s take a deep drive into why these highly processed foods pose a health risk, focusing particularly on their profound impact on the brain, especially young people’s mental health.

Depression, anxiety and the sugar paradox

Recent research shows that eating a lot of highly processed foods is not good for our mental health, especially in teenagers prone to anxiety. These foods, heavy in added sugars, preservatives, and artificial flavourings and colourings are connected to a higher chance of developing or exacerbating depression and anxiety disorders. [i]

There is a good biological reason for this: Glucose is the brain’s primary source of energy, and sufficient circulating blood glucose is essential for cognition, which, simply put is how we think. Cognition encompasses all the processes of the brain, including how we perceive the world around us, how we learn and retain knowledge, solve problems and make decisions. Symptoms like anxiety and depression appear when there is a disruption in the balance of cognitive activity. While there can be more than one reason for this, including genetic predispositions, there are dietary habits that definitely contribute, consistently worsening symptoms.

The insulin connection

When blood sugar rises it cause a release of insulin from the pancreas. Insulin helps blood sugar enter cells so it can be used for energy. It also signals the liver to store any excess sugar for later use. When we consume a lot of sugary foods, blood sugar (glucose) goes too high, triggering an excessive insulin response. In turn this causes a rapid drop in blood sugar levels, depriving the brain of the very glucose it needs to function. This can also happen after eating starchy carbohydrates like bread or potatoes, cookies and pies, since the body metabolizes these starchy carbohydrates into glucose. The resulting low blood sugar level we experience after eating sugar or starchy foods (hypoglycemia) has been shown to affect moods and making feelings of anxiety and stress worse. [ii]

An extreme form of anxiety – Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD – is on the increase in teenagers and adults alike. According to the Canadian Psychological Association, one out of every twelve Canadians will suffer from GAD at some time in their life. [iii] GAD is characterized by excessive fear and worrying over common everyday events or problems, and is accompanied by unpleasant physical symptoms – heart palpitations, chest tightness, irritability and difficulty concentrating. Many studies now link depression and anxiety to a diet high in sweets – cookies, candies and desserts – and refined grains, like bread, pasta, rice and potatoes. On the other hand, a high fruit and vegetable consumption has been shown to lower the risk. [iv]

Fruits and vegetables in their whole form – not juices – contain ample sugar to keep the brain humming along nicely, but they also contain much needed fibre, and fibre can help stabilize blood sugar.[v] In addition, adequate protein with each meal can benefit brain function in two ways. Firstly, it provides amino acids – the basic building blocks needed to make neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that control mood and sleep. And secondly, a high protein diet is known to improve blood sugar control.[vi]

A Tale of two diets

 An interesting case study that illustrates how every-day diets can impact mood appeared a few years ago in the journal Case Reports in Psychiatry. [vii]

A 15-year-old girl being treated for long-standing GAD rated the intensity of her anxiety as 8/10 (with 10 being the highest level of anxiety possible). Her symptoms included not just extreme anxiety but also heart palpitations, shakiness, stomach discomfort and muscle tension. Her daily diet consisted of the following:

Breakfast:Fruit smoothie made with fruit, fruit juice, and water.
Morning snack:Bagel with margarine.
Lunch:Pasta or white rice with vegetables.
Afternoon snack:Granola bar or cookies or candies.
Dinner:White rice or spaghetti; sometimes included meat.
Evening snack:Cookies and toast.

After her initial visit the following diet was prescribed. Note that it was higher in protein and fibre, and the source of carbohydrates was mainly from fruit and vegetables.

Breakfast: Fruit smoothie made with fruit, fruit juice, and water.
Lunch:Protein (meat, legumes or soy) and vegetables
Dinner:Protein and vegetables, similar to lunch
Snacks:Included protein with fruit and/or vegetables (e.g., apple with sunflower seed butter, vegetable sticks with hummus; pumpkin seeds).

Eggs, nuts, and fish were excluded, but only because the patient was severely allergic to them – normally they would have been encouraged.

One month later she reported a significant decrease in her anxiety levels (from 8/10 to 4 – 5/10), as well as improved energy, fewer headaches (once per week compared to daily) and greatly improved concentration and mood. However, at a follow-up visit four weeks later the patient reported that she had returned to her original diet for one week and within a day had experienced a worsening of anxiety. Persuaded that her new diet had indeed helped her, she returned to the diet she had been prescribed, and within two days her anxiety symptoms had again decreased. Hopefully she learned a valuable life lesson, and would remain on her new, more nutritious diet indefinitely.

We all know the old adage that we are what we eat. Perhaps we should add another saying to our list of dietary rules to live by: As we eat, so will we think. In the pursuit of convenience, we need to take care not to compromise the health of our most vital organ—the brain. Ultra-processed foods pose a significant threat to brain health, contributing to depression and anxiety in many young individuals.

They also increase the risk of dementia in the elderly [i], but that’s another story!

The dairy fat controversy

A recently published study in The European Heart Journal has confirmed what those of us who follow the research on dietary fat and health have believed for a long time: Choosing low or zero fat over full fat dairy is not helping us stay healthier!

The idea that dietary fat was the primary cause of heart disease emerged during the 1950’s and from then on ‘fat-free’ or ‘fat reduced’ foods began creeping into grocery stores, until by the 1980s they were everywhere. Experts warned that fat not only increased our risk of heart disease, but it was also largely responsible for making us fat. To stay in good shape, we should ‘substitute low fat food items for high fat ones, and decrease our intake of fatty meats and fish’, as one doctor wrote in the Globe and Mail in the early 2000s.

All of which left me scratching my head and wondering if I had been asleep during biochemistry classes. Was I wrong about fat? Were there no fats that were essential? What about the omega 3 fats you get from fatty fish and omega 6’s in vegetables oils? Didn’t immune health and good brain function depend heavily on the availability of these fats?

Then the tide changed and nutritional scientists began to realize that perhaps the baby had been thrown out with the bathwater. Certainly there were bad fats, found mainly in heavily processed or deep fried foods, but not all fat was bad. And so the emphasis changed to encouraging ‘good’ fats.  Fats like olive oil, nuts and seeds and avocados. Whole grains were encouraged not just because of their fibre content, but because of their healthy fats. 

But saturated fats were still bad – fats contained in butter, cream, eggs or yogurt made from full fat milk, were still off the menu.

What the research says

In the most recent study. The researchers examined the diets of 147,642 people in 21 countries taking part in a study called the PURE (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology PURE) study. Begun in 2003 and led by researchers at McMaster University, this large-scale global study which has been on-going since 2003 examines the impact of various lifestyle and environmental factors on cardiovascular disease and other health outcomes.

In the PURE study, a previously developed healthy diet score was developed based on six foods, each of which has been associated with a significantly lower risk of mortality. The foods include a higher intake of fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish, and dairy (mainly whole-fat). In individuals with or without pre-existing heart disease a higher intake of the protective foods was associated with lower risks of cardiovascular events like heart attacks and strokes. And contrary to the fat-reduced dairy trend, the research suggests that full-fat dairy could offer potential benefits for heart health. The PURE study is just one of multiple studies that have accumulated over the years that should reassure us that saturated fat by itself is not the villain when it comes to heart health, and contrary to some current advice, offers potential benefits for heart health. The main takeaway from the PURE study is that it is the overall quality of the entire diet that is most important. Other previous studies support the idea that full-fat dairy products may lower the risk of developing central obesity – that stubborn, difficult-to-lose extra weight that accumulates around the waist line.

In general, the evidence suggests that, compared to consuming zero fat yogurt or skimmed milk, consumption of full-fat dairy products is linked to better heart heath and weight control.[i]

Cranberry Baked Pears

Although this season is a time for an excess of sugary, sweet foods, and overindulgence in these treats is a major reason for the weight gain and sluggishness that often heralds in the New Year, it is possible to indulge a little and not pay a hefty price for it later.

This delightful combination of baked pears, sweet dried cranberries, and warm spices is a comforting and elegant dessert and smells so good while it’s cooking in the oven. Besides capturing the essence of the holiday season, it is packed with health-giving fibre and antioxidants.

Ingredients: Serves 4

  • 4 ripe but firm pears
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans)
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon of orange or lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon butter, melted
  • Whipped cream for serving


  1. Preheat your oven to 375°F (190°C).
  2. Wash the pears and cut in half lengthwise. Scoop out the core and seeds to make a hollow in the center of each pear half.
  3. In a bowl, mix together the cranberries, toasted nuts and honey with the cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
  4. Place pear halves on a baking dish, cut side up. Spoon the cranberry and nut mixture into each pear and drizzle with melted butter, ensuring each pear receives a light coating.
  5. Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes or until the pears are tender. The filling should be bubbly, and the pears golden brown.

Let the pears cool slightly before serving with a generous dollop of whipped cream. For an added festive touch, garnish with fresh mint leaves and a sprinkling of dried cranberries and chopped nuts.


[1]. Zheng, L.; Sun, J.; Yu, X.; Zhang, D. Ultra-Processed Food Is Positively Associated with Depressive Symptoms Among United States Adults. Front. Nutr. 2020, 7, 600449.

[1]. Kwon M, Lee M, Kim EH, Choi DW, Jung E, Kim KY, Jung I, Ha J. Risk of depression and anxiety disorders according to long-term glycemic variability. J Affect Disord. 2023 Dec 15;343:50-58


[1]. Haghighatdoost F., Azadbakht L., Keshteli A. H., et al. Glycemic index, glycemic load, and common psychological disorders. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2016;103(1):201–209

[1]. Fuller S, Beck E, Salman H, Tapsell L. New Horizons for the Study of Dietary Fiber and Health: A Review. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2016 Mar;71(1):1-1

[1]. Gannon MC, Nuttall FQ, Saeed A, Jordan K, Hoover H. An increase in dietary protein improves the blood glucose response in persons with type 2 diabetes. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Oct;78(4):734-41

[1].  Aucoin M, Bhardwaj S. Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Hypoglycemia Symptoms Improved with Diet Modification. Case Rep Psychiatry. 2016;2016:7165425.

[1]. Gomes Gonçalves N, Vidal Ferreira N, Khandpur N, Martinez Steele E, Bertazzi Levy R, Andrade Lotufo P, Bensenor IM, Caramelli P, Alvim de Matos SM, Marchioni DM, Suemoto CK. Association Between Consumption of Ultraprocessed Foods and Cognitive Decline. JAMA Neurol. 2023 Feb 1;80(2):142-150

[1]. Kratz M, Baars T, Guyenet S. The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease. Eur J Nutr. 2013 Feb;52(1):1-24

Note: Articles or commentary in this newsletter are not intended as medical advice. Please check with your doctor if you have a concern about your health.
©2011 Aileen Buford-Mason. All rights reserved.