Can You Eat Your Way to Happiness?

When you're as cynical as I am, the title of the book Eat Your Way to Happiness by Elizabeth Somer, sounds like a claim begging to be questioned. While I was reading her 10 diet secrets, I found myself wondering, "Yeah, but does it work?" I took a week to find out.

Fortunately, some of my approach to food already follows what Somer recommends. A large part of my diet already is "real food": I always eat breakfast and often whole grains, I don't drink much caffeine, and I eat lots of blueberries and other "superfoods." Still, some of the things she was asking me to do on this path to happiness were a challenge. I've grown used to having a beer while I cook dinner most evenings. Fatty fish twice a week would put a strain on my wallet. I was dubious that I could find an hour to do moderately intense exercise everyday.

But Somer had one directive that was more painful than all the others. I have a tooth, somewhere deep in my mouth (or perhaps just in my brain) that begs, on a semi-regular basis, to be fed. "Feed me, Rhena!" it cries much like a certain carnivorous plant of musical fame. Only one thing will sate this tooth: sugar. Giving up the sweet stuff for a week would be, in other words, the ultimate test of wills between me and my sweet tooth.

My daily snacks as of late have included chocolate-dipped granola bars, a corn syrupy treat that has managed to sneak its way from the candy bar section where it rightfully belongs to the snack bar section of the local grocery store. Fortunately, my husband decided that his love affair with granola bars had run its course, so it was easy for us to keep them out of the house. That's one of Somer's tips: clear your cupboards of all offending food stuff.

Like clockwork, though, every midmorning and midafternoon of this experiment, I went to the kitchen in search of my comfort bars. In their absence, I reached for a piece of fruit. It was one small victory.

I also cut out the post dinner sweet. Well, for the most part. One of Somer's secrets is to "indulge in the right vices." Amongst those vices are a few ounces of very dark chocolate and a glass of wine a few times a week. Because I was limiting sweets and beer, I looked forward to the small glass of wine or few pieces of dark, dark chocolate at the end of the day with, perhaps, an unnatural intensity. But as Somer promised, those little indulgences did taste better. Maybe I was just extra grateful for them because they were a special treat rather than just a habit. It did help that it felt like I was doing my body good. Somer writes, "feed people chocolate and their blood levels of antioxidants rise, their arteries become more elastic, their blood clots dissolve and their risk for heart disease drops."

Overall, did I feel happier and more energetic at the end of the week? It was probably too short of a time to really feel the benefits, but I did notice that I didn't suffer that afternoon crash that I had been feeling before I started the little experiment. I was perhaps a little happier as a result but it's hard to say whether that's happiness coming from the absence of a late-afternoon sugar-high-induced crash or the self-satisfied happiness that comes from resisting temptation.

While the book had loads of good ideas, tips, and even a few good recipes, I'm not sure I was the target audience. I loathe having to check labels, calculate percentages (keep your added sugars to 6 percent of your calories suggests Somers), and measure while I'm cooking. Fresh vegetables don't have labels and I love to just throw flavors in a pot and see how it turns out. Most of Somer's advice is more geared toward people who need food to be convenient and quick. She gives guidelines on what to look for on a frozen dinner box and what to order at fast-food restaurants. Other than my granola bar fetish, I much prefer a slow food approach. But in the name of good research, I went so far as to try a frozen dinner that fit her guidelines. I learned that I prefer left-overs from my own kitchen any day. Many of her recipes include Splenda, which I'd just as soon skip in favor of small amounts of sugar or honey or smaller portions.

And I love eating out. Food and socializing, in my mind, go hand in hand. My husband and I had one meal out during this week (at Brasa!) and, in order to stick more or less to Somer's guidelines, we loaded up on colorful veggies, skipped the cheese grits (don't worry, my love, we will be back!), and left the chicken skin on the plate (mostly). But beyond those few changes, there's no way you would find me not eating out with friends or skimping on a delicious, local, "real food" meal. Eating my way to happiness, it turns out, means eating fresh, whole foods with family and friends… and having a beer or two with it.

Somer's book may be the kick in the pants and guidance that some need to turn over a new leaf in an informed way. Her tips and information are interspersed with inspiring stories illustrating how these secrets turned real people's lives around. While the experiment was, in fact, a sort of kick in my pants or, rather, punch in my sweet tooth, I won't be ordering any yogurt parfaits at McDonald's or pouring Splenda over my steel cut oats any time soon.

Rhena Tantisunthorn, a native of Washington, DC, grew up knocking back Shirley Temples and cultivating a love of food at the bar rail of her parents' restaurant. She's eaten her way through much of Southeast Asia when she lived in Thailand for three years. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. She currently lives with her husband and daughter in South Minneapolis where she writes, edits and creates. Her last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Top Twin Cities Eateries for Families to Get Their Local On.