Thursday, November 11, 2010

Seeking Comfort

Did you know that the brain chemical serotonin is the one that keeps you in a good mood, if the levels are correct? Scientific studies show that when that chemical is produced it has an actual calming, anxiety reducing effect, and helps to provide you with a sense of well-being.

Exercise can increase serotonin production – which probably explains the term “Runner’s High.” And pasta, cookies, and other such ‘comfort” foods are the foods we tend to seek, because carbohydrate is the food that increases the production of serotonin in the brain.

So it seems, as a person trying to lose weight, that the best thing to do when stress strikes would be to take a long walk, or go for a run, or “Shred.”  The idea of that does sound great to me, but the truth is, it’s somehow much harder to get your ass moving than to bury your face in a plate of white pasta or to eat an entire box of Mallomars.

Additionally, eventually both the runner’s high and the food induced good mood will disappear because both of those are temporary fixes. This explains why, ultimately, someone invented drugs that would do the job of getting that serotonin pushed out and making the levels stay steady enough to keep the mood elevated. As we all know, when we are not stressed and are feeling happy and have a sense of well-being, it is pretty easy to stay on track.

I learned all this 15 years ago when a much-loved family member was diagnosed with depression caused by a chemical imbalance. During the process we found out that the 40 pounds he had gained over the year before his diagnosis were because he had pretty much stopped eating anything other than carbohydrates – and lots of them. Since it was our family’s first experience with anything like this, I wanted to face it without fear and to simply understand.

The reason any of this even comes to mind is that I have found myself wanting to sleep a lot, and eat bowls of spaghetti. I’m serious - all I want to eat is carbs these days, which tells me my brain is looking for some relief. However, I know bowls of pasta and slices of Wonder bread are not the answer, so on the days when I’ve been able to get past the knot in my stomach to eat, I have been gagging down including quality proteins and vegetables. But it hasn’t stopped me from wanting the carbs. Not one bit. I can be completely full and find myself wishing I could snort spaghetti like a drug.

Mr. Helen has been a very happy camper these days because he has always loved carbs in every form and I’ve been making them more than usual lately. Instead of having to get up and get himself a couple slices of bread to go with the meat and veggies I’ve made for dinner, the carbs have been right there on the table too.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against carbs at all, especially as a runner. But I know I don’t need to eat as many of them as I have been lately. I do prefer some sorts of carbs over others – i.e., pasta over potatoes – so my solution lately has been to switch to my less preferred carbs making it easier to control the portion.

As I made this dish on Monday, I thought that it would be a good recipe to share with you all, especially since the holidays are coming. The first time I ever made this was for a fancy Christmas Prime Rib dinner. It’s a nice easy recipe that will free up one of the burners on your stove. I hope you enjoy.

Crockpot Smashed Red Potatoes
Serves 6-8

3 lbs. small or baby red potatoes, cut into halves or quarters to make uniform size
4 gloves garlic, minced or crushed
1 tsp. sea salt
½ cup water
2T olive oil
½ cup whipped cream cheese with chives
¼ cup milk

Put the potato pieces, garlic, salt, water and olive oil into your crockpot. Give it a stir. Put crockpot on low, cook for 4-6 hours or until potatoes are tender. Turn crockpot off. Using a potato masher, smash the potatoes until they are somewhat chunky with smooth spots. Mash in the cream cheese with chives then give it a stir until blended. Add the milk and stir, adding more if the consistency is too thick.

If you have a crockpot with a removable crock, you can actually get these done and they can rest while you finish dishing up your meal.  These also reheat really well and if they seem too thick just add a little more milk when you reheat them.

Just FYI, if you’d like to read some lay person friendly info on food and mood:


  1. I agree wholeheartedly that food and mood are DIRECTLY connected. That's part of why it's so important to make good food choices... it impacts us on every level --- body, mind, and soul.

  2. I LOVE my serotonin, and my mallomars. I hear you friend, I hear you LOUD AND CLEAR! You think we need to talk or are you good in that area?

  3. I think I knew all that but had pushed it all to the back of my mind...thanks for the reminder. I've slowly come to prefer whole grain carbs over processed so that's a step in the right direction. I think.

    I'm away from home until Friday night but Saturday I am definitely making those potatoes...yum!

  4. It IS interesting how the body can crave what the brain is missing! And it's so hard when you know that the carbs will help, at least in the short run. I like your way of eating the less-preferred carbs (to you) in order to hopefully not "snort spaghetti" (now that made me crack up!). Hope things get on an upswing for you, and soon. Hugs.

  5. I suppose it's because I wrecked my whole brain and body and hormones by my years of drinking, but comfort to me is cheese. And the ultimate is a peanut butter (only smooth) and velveeta sandwich on white bread. (I know, gross. But I love it.) But when I discovered that running did the same thing? It was like crack. I'm hooked.

  6. I didn't know anything about that Helen - thanks for the lesson - and why I love my carbs - must be why I am so happy all the time!

    Although, I have to say, as I end the second week of South Beach, I feel SO MUCH better without the carbs - I have had no stomach issues at all, which in and of itself is amazing.


  7. There are some great books on the "food-mood" connection. One is called "Food and Mood" Clever name huh? LOL It's a great book.

    I find it fascinating how this time of year there seems to be a lot more is typical with this season. Also typical with this season is the desire for all the 'comfort' food that we crave.

    Never thought of doing mashed potatoes in the crock pot! GREAT idea! Thanks!

  8. I love carbs and would love to have a spaghetti snorting party with you. LOL

    I've read that some people get addicted to that nice feeling they get from exercising and do too much. They crave that feeling.

    Interesting stuff.

  9. Yeah, the food-mood connection. I do love my comfort food, which is, of course, mostly carbs. But I feel much better all around without them.

    Got to try the potato recipe...yum.

  10. The reason it's easier to eat than move is a person's butt gets too big from all the eating and then they can't move with a big butt. (I have tons of experience in this area).

  11. popcorn is my comfort food....the warm fuzzies fade as soon as you realize you have used up all the brownie points you put in during the week at the gym,on one days worth of eating and again, won't be losing any weight this week. Not worth it.
    Hope you start feeling better soon. and I am ignoring the smashed potato recipe...I love potatoes too much to make them. lol.

  12. I'm sorry you're having such a hard time Helen. I wonder if a recipe like the potato cauliflower bake would satisfy you. I love it, And the calories are certainly right. Here's the link if you want to try it.

  13. xo xo xo xo xo

    and what Debby said.

    The baked cauliflower mightcould trick your brain a bit? I know it does mine...

  14. Spaghetti squash, served just like pasta with a meatballs and sauce, is my go-to comfort food when I am eating healthy and feeling stressed. It is higher in carbs than other veggies, but it's nowhere near the damage that can be done with a plate of the real thing.