Two recent movies presented a view of the slow, sad grind of purposeless middle America: The Good Girl (with Jennifer Aniston), and About Schmidt (with Jack Nicholson). In both of them, the characters were caught in a bleak environment where life seemed to have no purpose in particular, and they couldn’t get out of it. I related to these sad lives because there was a time in my own life – many, many years ago – where I had similar feelings.
It was shortly after my arrival to the US, in the early sixties, when I got what I eventually recognized as “the blues”. I had a series of low level jobs, and at times had brief fantasies of sweeping everything off the tables and making a mess. These feelings surprised me, as they were new. They had something to do with trying to rebel against the sense of sameness – there was a song at the time that mentioned about all the homes made of “ticky tacky” and they all looked just the same. I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, but I also associated the feelings with the German expression “weltschmerz,” or “pain about the world.” Mostly, I felt sorry for myself and didn’t like how I felt. Life sucked, as we would say today. I ascribed it to the state of the world and my understanding of how people messed everything up.
As I looked back on those days, after seeing those movies and relating to them, I realized that those feelings of nameless despair had long ago disappeared and never returned, regardless of my personal circumstances of trouble or happiness in the ensuing 40 years. What was it that had made the difference? I had to do some serious digging, and as I did, I felt that there was a two-pronged approach that ended up working for me, an approach that others can use to climb out of the pit as well.
First of all, diet. Early on I found that the food most clearly associated with the “blues” is sugar. My late friend Bill Dufty, whom I knew well and saw often during the late ‘60’s and early ‘70s, knew what he was talking about when he called his book Sugar Blues. About 3-4 days after I quit eating sugared breakfasts (coffee with sugar, donuts), the gloomy feeling lifted completely. In other words, if you are sad, blue, mildly depressed, sighing about the miseries of your life – the first thing to do is to quit eating refined cane and other sugars. And I mean ZERO sugar. No sweetened cereals, no breads or bean salads with sugar in them, no muffins, no cookies, no jams, no desserts. This means careful label reading, as well as very conscious eating – none of this shoveling food into your mouth without noticing what it is.
After eliminating sugar, the next step for me was replacing all refined carbohydrates with whole grains: brown rice instead of white, wholegrain bread instead of white, even whole grains instead of potatoes. That made another big difference, as it gave me a sense of strength and groundedness. Later on I learned that insuring enough protein was another step for mental health, and especially for avoiding sugar cravings.
Eating only fresh, home cooked foods (instead of frozen meals or canned vegetables), was a major aspect. This is not a new idea, nor is it an airy-fairy notion of the counterculture. More than 25 years ago, in the 1977 report of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs of the US Senate, chaired by then senator George McGovern, there was an extensive discussion of the dangers of relying on frozen and highly processed foods. Mention was made of prisons where inmates stopped complaining about the food and throwing their meals against the wall when they were again fed properly cooked meals. Marion Burros, the long-time New York Times food writer, was quoted as saying, “the feeding of children in any school program should be an integral part of their education process, and not just something to get out of the way as quickly as possible.” And a Washington Star editorial in June of 1976 quoted Mary Goodwin, a Montgomery County public health nutritionist, as saying “if you eat enough precooked, frozen, reheated foil-and-plastic packed lunches out of machines, part of you will starve to death.”
So the dietary approach to getting out of despair includes the following:
1) no cane sugar (white, brown, or organic); no corn syrup, molasses, or artificial sweeteners (which confuse the blood sugar regulation system and so can affect moods)
2) eating sufficient protein (beans or animal foods daily) to forestall sugar cravings
3) choosing only freshly prepared foods (nothing canned or frozen)
In addition, there is a psychological/spiritual step to take, and that has to do with focusing on something other than oneself. Children can be a good thing to focus on – although unless one is committed to a positive outlook and a natural approach, raising children can be viewed as a depressing chore. Having a focus such as a calling, a cause, a meaningful career, a business that requires close attention, in short, something that makes us forget about ourselves, that is a major boost to avoiding despair. Just as I was working on this piece, there was an interesting report from Reuters Health online: “Protesting can be good for your health.” It turns out that a study at the University of Sussex in England found that people who get involved in campaigns, strikes, and political demonstrations experience and improvement in mood that helps them overcome stress, pain, anxiety, and depression. The key components of these activities were collective action and the feeling of being part of a group. The feelings of happiness arising from these empowering events lasted for years.
All of the above applied to me. Having children and tending to them totally took me out of myself. Making a commitment to the cause of teaching healthful eating and empowering people to take care of their own health was probably the main reason for my improved general mood, regardless of the difficulties and tribulations that path brought me. As a natural loner and an immigrant, I had trouble finding community; over the years, I have found myself in various growing communities of shared paths and interests. My old blues are a distant memory, and I fully believe that’s what they’ll stay.
Here is a good mood recipe of something sweet that is not sugar, and also high in antioxidants. I’ve served it several times this past winter and people just love it.
2 yams or sweet potatoes, about 1 lb
1 heaping tablespoon unrefined coconut butter (the one that tastes like coconut)
1. Peel yams, cut into chunks, cover with water, and simmer about 20 minutes, covered, until soft. Pour out all but 2-3 tablespoons of the cooking water. Mash with a potato masher, adding a little cooking water if necessary for a good texture.
2. Add the coconut butter and mix well. Serve immediately. Makes about 4 servings.
(If you cannot find the coconut butter, use regular butter and add 1/4 cup grated coconut.)
Dietary Goals for the United States. Printed for the use of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, United States Senate. US Government Printing Office, Washington: 1977.
Unrefined coconut oil is obtainable at good natural supermarkets, health food stores, or at The Natural Gourmet Cookery School, 212-645-5170, ext 0 (for mail orders).