Turkey Makes You Sleepy: Fact-Checking the Food-Mood Conventional Wisdom

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For groggy office workers, the motivating virtues of coffee have never been in doubt. But does science support this belief? Or others, like the mood-enhancing power of chocolate? Does that candy actually put a child at risk for a sugar high? The Los Angeles Times puts these time-honored beliefs to the test in a fun, informative article that explores what strange alchemy connects (or contrary to conventional wisdom, sometimes doesn't connect) our hearts, minds, and bellies.

And a seasonal FYI: The article also explains why you don't want to be the person at Thanksgiving who, mid-yawn, can't stop babbling about tryptophan. Here are two of the scrutinized food-mood claims:

Turkey makes you sleepy

False

People have often heard that foods rich in tryptophan—an amino acid plentiful in turkey and milk—will make them sleepy because it has a calming effect on the brain. But each molecule of tryptophan has to compete with many other amino acids to get into the brain, says Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietitian and author of "Eat Your Way to Happiness." A Thanksgiving feast will make you groggy, but tryptophan isn't the reason.

"Eating any big meal, especially if you also drink alcohol, is likely to make you feel sleepy," Kanarek says.

Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish help depression

True

At the NIH, Hibbeln has spent two decades studying the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on depression and other mood disorders. The evidence that eating fish high in omega-3s can help is strong, he says.

"These nutrients are as effective as antidepressants in treating people with clinical depression," Hibbeln says. In fact, the American Psychiatric Assn. recommends that people with major depression consume a daily omega-3 supplement.

However, some nutritionists have gotten carried away by assuming that omega-3s can boost the spirits of people who are feeling just a little down. "When we give antidepressants to people who are a little blue, we see that placebos have an almost equal response," Hibbeln says.

For those with clinical depression, the recommended dose is three 6-ounce servings of salmon, tuna, herring or sardines each week.

Read the full story at The Los Angeles Times.

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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