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Blame the Marshmallows, not the Military

When I dove into depression in the early years of military married life, I blamed it on the military.

And yes, there were many aspects of military life that led to my unhappiness in those early years.

There was the feeling that I’d lost my own sense of self, that I was merely a social security number, not even my own social security number.

There was the repeated experience of giving everything up with each move, my house, my garden, my friends, that job that had taken me so long to find.

And there was the fact that it was so hard to pursue an actual career as we moved too frequently, often to remote or overseas locations with limited opportunities.

Finally I asked for help, went to a therapist -- well, two really, since we had a PCS move during that time. I read books, went to workshops, interviewed others. I took proactive action that changed my life.

Since then my coauthor Holly Scherer and I have reviewed all kinds of research on happiness in life, on stress and energy management, on relationships. We’ve interviewed hundreds of military spouses of all services, and share what we learned in our workshops and books.

I realize now we left one big piece out. Food.

Now that I know there is a connection between diet and depression. If we do a fourth edition of our Military Spouse Journey book we’ll add a full chapter.

For now, let me recommend the book The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean, Energized Body, by Tyler Graham and Drew Ramsey, MD.

One “Ah ha” after another pops up as I read. I realize now how my depression and anxiety likely were at least partially affected by MAD, the Modern American Diet, a diet high in refined sugar and refined carbohydrates.

“People most dependent on MAD style eating habits have increased levels of depression and anxiety, mood swings, hyperactivity and a wide range of other mental and emotional problems.” And oh by the way, “Syndrome X, metabolic syndrome, caused by MAD also leads to weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.”

Back in my days of depression I dieted a lot. I’d bought into the low fat “wisdom” of the time. As a result, I cut way back on any meat, real butter, egg yolks, all foods that might have provided nutrients my brain needed.

When Greg was deployed I lived on things like popcorn, apples and wine for dinner. Since I’m not a cook, I depended heavily on processed frozen dinners.

I’m one of those who can eat the same thing night after night, just because it’s easy, not realizing back then how much I deprived my body and brain of the nutrients you get from eating a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and grains.

I thought I was being “good” snacking on marshmallows, red vines and graham crackers, all low fat. I conveniently ignored the fact that they were high sugar. Low fat yogurt was a mainstay. I probably wouldn’t have been eating it if it had been just as accurately labeled “high sugar” yogurt.

My daily treat of choice back then, Cheetos, were packed with trans fats. It wasn’t until 2011 that the National Academy of Science linked trans fats to greatly increased rates of depression, finding that “no level of trans fats in the diet is safe.”

Captain Joe Hibbeln, a member of the Public Health Service, is partnering with the military on research into nutrition and the brain. In his case, he’s researching whether increasing Omega 3s in our diet might prevent occurrences of depression and suicidal thinking, and might protect a soldier should he or she suffer traumatic brain injury. Hibbeln calls it giving “nutritional armor to the war fighter."

We need “nutritional armor” on the home front too. I’m doing my own research, changing my diet based on key findings in The Happiness Diet. I challenge you. Read The Happiness Diet and see if you aren’t similarly convinced. Even if you aren’t a marshmallow addict.

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