by Tara Pederson

Ancient Babylonians were likely the first to hold recorded celebrations in honor of the new year.  For them the year began in mid-March, when the crops were planted. During a twelve day religious festival the Babylonians crowned a new king or repledged loyalty to the reigning king. They made promises to the gods to pay their debts. These promises could be considered the forerunners of our New Year’s resolutions. If the Babylonians kept to their word, their gods would show them favor in the coming year. If not, they would fall out of the gods’ favor.

In ancient Rome, Julius Caesar tinkered with the calendar and established January 1 as the beginning of the new year. January had special significance for the Romans. The month was named after the two faced god, Janus, who they believed looked back to the previous year and ahead to the future. They offered sacrifices and made promises of good conduct for the coming year.

For early Christians, the first day of the new year became a time to think about one’s past mistakes, to do and be better in the future. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, created the Covenant Renewal Service, held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.

New Year’s resolutions today are a mostly secular practice. Instead of making promises to the gods, most people make resolutions to themselves, and focus on self-improvement, especially regarding health and well being.  In recent years, that focus has been pointed more toward mental and emotional health, rather than physical alone.

On that note, a growing body of research tells us food affects our moods, emotions, and conditions like depression. We rely on the energy that we put into our bodies, which in turn affects our hormones, blood sugar levels, almost all biological processes.  What we know so far can be summed up, more or less, as this: Whole-food diets heavy on the fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed protein can improve moods improve symptoms of depression, while too much junk food and sugar may put our mental health at risk.

16 diverse studies with almost 46,000 participants from the United States, Australia, and Europe, ranging from ages 21 to 85, prescribing a variety of diets to boost nutrient intake, reduce fat intake, or encourage weight loss were conducted.  One group went on a vegan diet, while others restricted calories; many people loaded up on fruits and vegetables while avoiding meat and processed foods. They followed the diet for anywhere from a couple weeks to a few years.

The results? Adopting a healthier diet lead to reduced symptoms of depression compared to engaging in other self-improvement activities or going about life as usual.  A strong study suggested diet could help people experiencing a major depressive episode.  Depressed people with poor diets, were instructed to follow a diet favoring whole grains, fruit and vegetables, legumes, low-fat dairy, nuts, fish, lean red meat, chicken, eggs, and olive oil while reducing sweets, refined grains, fried and fast food, processed meats, and sugary drinks. The results after 12 weeks were astounding. 85% of participants reported drastic reduction of or improvement in their depression.

I am no nutritionist or therapist, but whatever your goals for 2020, I urge you to take care of yourselves and each other, and leave you with an easy recipe to jump start your January, by making the small change of using more olive oil in your cooking.

Olive Oil Confit Chicken – Combine 1 lb chicken (I like legs and thighs but use your favorite cut), 2 tsp salt, 4 springs fresh thyme, picked, 4 crushed cloves garlic, a large pinch crushed peppercorns and the zest of one orange.  Refrigerate overnight.  Brush excess seasoning off chicken, place in an oven safe dish and cover with 1 quart olive oil. Cover dish and bake at 300 degrees for 2 hours, or until meat falls off the bone.  Drain before serving.