The holiday season is filled with emotion for most people. While this emotion is often happy, positive and loving, for many people it can be very unhappy and even depressing. Holiday music can trigger emotional associations with the absence of a loved one or unhappy memories from the past. The gap between the smiling faces of holiday ads and one’s unhappy emotional experience can actually lead to a deepening of the emotional darkness that often accompanies this season of lights.



As you approach the new year, you may be making resolutions for positive health behavior changes. Birthdays and other anniversaries also prompt us to take stock and vow to adopt healthy lifestyle habits. Two of the most common promises we make to ourselves are to increase our physical activity level and our stress management skills. Research is now showing that combining mindfulness meditation and physical activity can dramatically improve physical and emotional health.



In addition to cold weather, winter sometimes brings sadness and depression.  Some people experience depression only during the winter. Others with year-round depression have worsening symptoms in winter. Terms such as “winter blues,” “wintertime depression” and “winter-onset depression” refer to a potentially serious form of depression called “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD), which affects people during the coldest and (most importantly) darkest months of the year.


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The Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) is the world’s premier nutrition education resource. Harvard Medical School and the Department of Nutrition at HSPH developed the Healthy Eating Plate to provide the general public with up-to-date, science-based nutrition education. They recognized the need to provide more scientifically accurate information than is provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) MyPlate, which does not accurately reflect current, science-based nutrition advice. The USDA has a dual mandate to (1) promote U.S. agricultural products and (2) advise the U.S. public on best nutrition practices. Lobbying by special interest groups weakens the scientific credibility of the USDA’s public nutrition advice, leading to recommendations that are not entirely consistent with current scientific evidence. HSPH’s Healthy Eating Plate is based purely on a critical review of the best scientific nutrition research without lobbying pressure from special interests.

So how does the Healthy Eating Plate differ from MyPlate?

The Healthy Eating Plate emphasizes the health and nutritional advantage of whole grains over refined grains, which lose nutritional value in the refining process. Switching from refined grains to whole grains can make a huge difference in your health. Whole grains retain more fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals – naturally occurring chemicals with benefits for promoting health and preventing disease. Eating whole grains can help lower

cholesterol and blood pressure, reducing the risk of blood clots, strokes and heart disease. Whole grains help moderate blood glucose and insulin levels, reduce cancer risk and can contribute to longer life. Refined grains such as white bread and white rice are metabolized like sugar in the body, contributing to the epidemic of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. MyPlate did not initially distinguish between whole grains and refined grains. It now suggests at least half your grains be whole rather than refined.

In contrast to the USDA’s recommendation regarding protein, the Healthy Eating Plate stresses the importance of healthy protein. Based on the best available scientific evidence, consumers are urged to eat healthier proteins such as fish, poultry, beans and nuts. We are encouraged to limit red meat and avoid processed meat, which raise the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and colon cancer. MyPlate does not distinguish these unhealthy protein sources from healthy ones.

The Healthy Eating Plate encourages us to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to obtain a healthy mix of the many nutrients they contain.

We are especially urged to eat dark green, leafy vegetables and those that are red, yellow and orange. This variety can help lower blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and stroke. It can help prevent some types of cancer, eye conditions and digestive problems. The Healthy Eating Plate also highlights the problem with our favorite vegetable: potatoes. We are advised to limit our consumption of potatoes, including French fries, since they are loaded with a form of starch that has the same effect on blood sugar as refined grains, sugar and other sweets. While MyPlate also recommends this wide variety of fruits and vegetable, it contains no advice about limiting the consumption of potatoes.

The Healthy Eating Plate recommends using healthy oil, including olive, canola and other plant oils in recipes, on salads and in cooking. Healthy fats can help control cholesterol levels and benefit the heart. HSPH advises limiting the use of butter and completely avoid trans fat. MyPlate makes no recommendation regarding dietary fat. This is a serious omission and one that should be corrected in future updates to MyPlate.

What should you drink? The Healthy Eating Plate recommends drinks with no calories, including plain water and unsweetened coffee and tea. It urges consumers to avoid sugary drinks, including commercial sweetened waters, which are major contributors to the epidemics of obesity and diabetes. We are urged to limit milk and dairy to one to two servings per day. High dairy consumption may be associated with increased risk of prostate and ovarian cancer. We are advised to limit fruit juice to a small glass a day because of its sugar and calorie content. MyPlate suggests dairy at every meal, despite scientific evidence against this recommendation, and also allows fruit juice to count as a fruit serving.

The Healthy Eating Plate recommends regular physical activity as part of the answer to our global epidemic of obesity. MyPlate makes no physical activity recommendation.

You can be healthier and live longer by making smart nutrition choices. The Healthy Eating Plate and The Nutrition Source at Harvard’s School of Public Health are your best resources for nutrition advice for living a longer, healthier life.

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Dr. John Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is board certified in family medicine and integrative holistic medicine. He is on the family practice faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the University of Louisville School of Medicine, Saybrook University’s School of Mind Body Medicine (San Francisco) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, D.C.). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers integrative medicine consultations

more articles by dr john patterson