A Little Extra Thoughtfulness

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

It’s coming.  The busiest travel time of the year is nearly here.  Thanksgiving is next week, and we’ll be bracing for impact.  Tens of millions of people will go somewhere they don’t really want to go and will do things they don’t really want to do — in some cases with people they may not even like.

Painful delays at airports, agonizing congestion on highways, bad weather, stress, and exhaustion will give a green light to viruses everywhere. Welcome to the cold and flu season.  It might be prudent to rethink a few things.

Despite a strong economy, this has been a very tough year for many people.  Historic flooding, catastrophic hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, and hellish wildfires have inflicted untold suffering and loss.  Mass shootings, violent threats, angry mobs, and generally vicious behavior have overshadowed civility and decorum.  Many decent people across the country feel overwhelmed and demoralized.  I don’t think anyone needs more stress, certainly not at the Thanksgiving table.

But all is not lost.  Difficult situations bring out the worst in some people but the very best in many others.  Heroic acts of courage and compassion abound whenever disaster strikes.  Few of us will ever have to save someone from a raging flood or fire, but we can all be a bit more thoughtful and understanding.  This year, consider a few ideas that might make Thanksgiving less stressful and more pleasant for everyone:

  • Don’t put pressure on loved ones to travel. People only have so much time, energy, and money to spare.  Controlling relatives is not helpful here.
  • Include someone who might otherwise be alone.  Chances are good such folks are all around you.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist in the kitchen. Thanksgiving is not a competitive event.
  • Offer to help or bring a dish, but don’t force your brussels sprouts casserole on the host. Some people don’t know when to cease and desist.
  • Resist the temptation to talk politics. Now is not the time to upset people.
  • Put a ban on phones, television, and assorted other devices. Through your church, synagogue, or club, sponsor a Thanksgiving dinner for a family in need.
  • Show interest in other people at dinner. Good conversation starts with sincere questions about the other person and really listening to that person.
  • Don’t inflict yourself on others if you’re sick. Someone will almost certainly be happy to bring you some wonderful leftovers.
  • Be genuinely grateful for all the blessings you do have. Let people know that you appreciate them.

Thanksgiving is a lovely holiday with charming traditions.  With a little extra thoughtfulness, we can make it better than ever for everyone.

The Holidays: A Time for Comfort Food

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Nutrition, Seminars, Webinars

By Dr. Laura Pawlak

The term comfort food can be traced back to 1966, when the Palm Beach Post used the term in a story:  “Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort foods.’  These foods are associated with the security of childhood, the relief of stress, and euphoric feelings.”

Although the identification of particular items as comfort foods may be unique to an individual, patterns are detectable.  In a study of American food choices, males preferred warm, hearty, meal-related comfort foods, such as steak, casseroles, and soup.   Females consumed snacks as comfort foods, such as chocolate chip cookies and ice cream. Young or middle-age people, under 55 years of age, overwhelmingly chose snack-related, comfort foods.

As the holidays approach, families and friends gather to share an array of comfort foods that provide nostalgic or cultural value.  These foods are often characterized by their high caloric nature, rich in (1) carbohydrate and fat or (2) fat and salt.

Consuming energy-dense food awakens a group of brain structures wired together into a reward system.  This brain circuitry elicits emotions based on the sensory experience of the food.  Comfort foods trigger pleasurable feelings — moments of joy.

The chemicals responsible for feeling good are two-fold:  endorphins, nature’s opioids; and endocannabinoids, the feel-good chemicals found in marijuana.  Sugary foods activate the release of endorphins.  Pizza, cheese casseroles, and other fatty foods spur the production of endocannabinoids.

When fat and sugar are combined, as in desserts, an explosion of both endorphins and endocannabinoids floods the brain, causing elation beyond nature’s offerings.  The temptation to overeat may be overwhelming, especially when a fond memory is linked to the food.

Enjoying holiday celebrations, without consuming excessive amounts of comfort foods, requires forethought.  A plan is helpful!  For example, set aside the day before the event as a time to eat fewer calories.  Drink water, coffee, and/or tea. Have two light meals — perhaps a fruit salad and a green salad.

On the day of the celebration, eat a healthy breakfast and add a salad if you feel hungry before attending the festivity.  At the party, take a deep breath between bites of your favorite foods.  Notice the positive memories that surface as you eat slowly.

Lastly, don’t take goodies home.  Holiday gatherings are meaningful times with friends, not just food.  Savor the season!


Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renown biochemist and dietitian emerita.  She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.”  On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally.

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