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.

About the Author

Kathie Hightower
Kathie Hightower is a longtime military spouse. With her cohort Holly Scherer she's presented Follow Your Dreams While You Follow the Military™ workshops for military spouses worldwide. Coauthor of Military Spouse Journey: Discover the Possibilities and Live Your Dreams, and 1001 Things to Love About Military Life, along with many columns and articles. Find more about Military Spouse Journey on Facebook here.
  • Excellent! My degree is in health education with a focus on nutrition. Between my education and my own personal experience and my passion for pursuing better ways of living, this article really hit home. Lately I have been guilty of eating horribly…even though I know so much better! Thanks for sharing this reminder. I will look forward to reading the chapter on nutrition in your next book (even though I just finished your 2nd, and just bought your 3rd! )

    • Kathie Hightower

      thanks Sadie–I hope you spread the word to other spouses. Nutrition is one of the things we actually have control over!

  • M.J.

    It’s very interesting that you “depended heavily on processed frozen dinners”. I noticed a trend a while back that may interest you.

    In the job that I have, I am consistently aware of which units are deployed, how far into the deployment they are and how many are gone. Almost immediately after send-off, I observed that the “frozen food” freezer at our 7Day store is almost completely BARE. I would pop in there to grab a frozen pizza on a night where I had to work late occasionally but it wasn’t until my husband was frequently TAD that I correlated my “frozen food” usage with the fact that he was gone. This made me wonder if it wasn’t just me.

    So I asked my friends and others in my community if this is something that they partook in. The feedback was astounding! Most of them told me that right after a unit deploys that it takes a bit for the commissary and the Exchanges to “catch up” and order more based on their inventory and sales.

    I just thought you would enjoy that “food for thought”. ;)

    • Kathie Hightower

      M.J. hmmmm, sounds like a research project in the making! Over the years, I’ve stopped using frozen dinners at all once I realized it was just as easy to make a huge salad for the week and just keep adding chicken cooked on an indoor grill or canned salmon or boiled eggs. But when Holly and I travel to do workshops, we used to laugh how we turned then to frozen dinners since most places we stayed had a microwave. We’d each get our two favorite frozen dinners (one never seemed enough), some carrots and tomatoes to add a bit of health, red wine and chocolate…and we were set. Now I’ll look for better options.

  • Meg

    I was the polar opposite, my husband had terrible eating habits and I switched to clean eating when he deployed. I had more time to devote my attention to it and to exercise as I already was doing. All of this and I still got moderate depression. Its not always the food, but I agree, it does not help when unhealthy lifestyle choices are made with it. Some people are more prone to chemical imbalances in the brain triggered by major events. This is my second time I’ve struggled with it, so I was more self aware and sought help before it became severe.

    Before service members deploy, spouses should be counseled on behavioral health and the signs they should look out for. Not only that, but be given resources for eating well, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Id rather be depressed and healthy and give my body its own fuel to fight it than be depressed and possibly making it worse with junk food.

  • Kathie Hightower

    Meg–I agree…it’s a combination of factors but diet certainly plays into it. And it’s important to ask for help. One thing that helped me so much in later years was having my support system in place. I started a “Dare to Dream Team” something we talk about in our book (and also have a free download explaining the how to on our website My teams were my mainstay with future deployments and other challenging life events.