Lacking New Year motivation? There is always some science to explain it!

Lacking New Year motivation? There is always some science to explain it!

I recently wrote a post about my aims and goals for 2015, and beside my laptop there is a serious plan of action for me for the upcoming year.The kids are in school, the sun is shining through the window, the dishes are not sitting in the sink and the Christmas tree has been removed. No distractions, no excuses, I am ready and primed for action….. right? WRONG!

I am lacking some very important factors…. energy, creativity and motivation!

In fact I am standing on the precipice of disappointment and failure. It is half way through the second week “back to work/school/life” after Christmas and I am pretty sure I am not alone. Before I give up on myself and my abilities, bin the plans and ditch the diaries, I have decided on a different approach.

I will arm myself with knowledge, because understanding why I feel like this will help me to accept it and help me to pass through it, so I won’t end up “throwing the baby out with the bath water”.


Why the lack of energy? Well, is this one really surprising? For most of us we just have to look at our diet over the last few weeks… sugar is probably high on the consumption list.

Originally sugar does give us energy, it causes a rapid peak in blood sugar levels. It can be quite similar to a caffeine hit. With every high there comes a low and for sugar that usually happens within an hour or so. A hormone called insulin is released in response to the high levels of blood sugar. Insulin instigates the uptake of sugar from the blood to the cells, resulting in low levels of blood sugars, fatigue, weakness and hunger. On top of all that, the cells will convert the sugar they do not use directly as fuel into fat, as it is lighter and easier to store in the body.

photo credit: Chiot's Run via photopin cc
photo credit: Chiot’s Run via photopin cc

In general, the food we eat over the holiday season, although tasty, often has the overall effect of lowering our mood. Protein rich diets for example (how much turkey did you eat?) can lower our serotonin levels and leave us feeling low. Carbohydrates can increase serotonin levels, but, if eaten with protein, can have the opposite effect… back to that serotonin slump again.

So the lack of energy is not exactly surprising.



For most of us Christmas is about doing very little, exercise wise. I am a firm believer in taking time off and just resting for a while and those dark days at the end of the year seem like a good time to do so. The lack of exercise does, however, come at a cost… not only does regular exercise boost our mood, our energy levels and our general wellbeing, it can also increase our creativity.

Image source


Considering the fact that I barely left the house for much of the Christmas, it is little wonder that I am feeling low in mood and motivation.


Change of body clock

Then there is the change to our body clocks. Most of us don’t get up as early in the morning, if we don’t have to. Even the children tend to sleep a little later (if we are lucky) because they too are staying up later every night. So we shift our body clocks on an hour or two and feel like we are recharging the batteries. The only problem is, once work and school resume, we need to jolt our bodies back into that early rise again.

The more clever and organised among us may do this in a gradual way but I inevitable cling to it until the very last second and then just go “cold turkey” on the first morning back after the holiday; Not exactly conducive to good energy levels and motivation.


photo credit: MyLittleFinger via photopin cc
photo credit: MyLittleFinger via photopin cc


We have just established that I am tired, my body clock is out of whack and that my diet has made me sluggish. Not exactly great motivators. So how can I improve things? I came across a really interesting article all about the science of motivation. To understand motivation, both lacking and encouraging, we need to take a look at the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Dopamine is commonly linked with triggering pleasurable feedback and reward within the body. Its true role goes a little deeper than that as it is also actively involved in controlling mood, attention, behaviour, memory and motivation. The complex fine-tuning of the effect of dopamine on our bodies comes with examining the route the neurotransmitter takes within the signalling pathways of the brain. If we imagine these pathways as a very complex rail system. The tracks the dopamine train follows, along with the individual stations the train passes through, dictate the overall response. When dopamine reaches certain parts of the brain,  it signals feedback to anticipate reward or predict a particular outcome. This creates the motivation to act, rather than the reward for acting.

Spikes in dopamine levels have been recorded in situations of high stress, coming before any reward and likely to create motivation to action to reach a certain outcome.

This knowledge is very interesting but how does it help to motivate us when we are in a slump? By knowing how it works we can manipulate the system; create small, achievable tasks that will result in a drip feed of dopamine within the brain. As each small task is performed the levels of dopamine will increase and so too, hopefully will our motivation.  This system certainly got me through this blog post, when the task appeared too big I broke it down into words, sentences, adding images, choosing title until eventually the motivation increased, the reward feedback kicked in an the paragraphs began to add up.

In other words, I took it in baby steps, allowing myself feel the individual reward as each step was achieved.


I'd rather take a catnap on the laptop than type on it! photo credit: jypsygen via photopin cc
Lacking motivation!                            photo credit: jypsygen via photopin cc


How does all this help me with my New Year’s resolutions?

Firstly, I have realised that I may be aiming too high, new year plans are great but it is never a good idea to try to force them into being in early January. Better to implement these goals and changes gentle, over time, and in small doses.

I need to remember to cut myself some slack. I chose to take the down time and I am really glad I did. Now I have to accept that it may take a little time to shift life up a gear, just as it takes time to shift the extra weight that comes with a good Christmas season.

The first of January may be a great day to make all these predictions but the first of February might be a better date to roll them out! In the mean time I am going to shuffle slowly and quietly through this month, I’ll call it “working behind the scenes”. Maybe by February I’ll be all revved up and ready for action.

I am sure that there is still time to cram a year of plans into 11 months – once I remember to take it in baby steps and let the dopamine flow!

How are you doing with your New Year plans?

Vegetables in baking – Part one: keeping it sweet

Vegetables in baking – Part one: keeping it sweet

Now that I have entered the world of blogging I enjoy reading other blogs as much as I do writing and researching this one.  I have some favourites that I check in to regularly as a little treat; chief among them is the Greenside Up blog!  Written by the lovely Dee Sewell, this blog brings together garden, community and kitchen, always with a refreshing, informative and jovial note!  Last week was no exception as Dee shared a recipe for Beetroot Chocolate cake. The post not only extended my baking “to do list” but also posed the question…

“Why do vegetable work so well in baking?”


The concept is fairly new to most of us (although we are all familiar with the carrot cake) but is growing in popularity.  With good reason too, it seems.  Tempted, or completely put off by the idea?… I have prepared a short series of blogs to explain a little of the science behind the concept and hopefully to convince you to give it a go!

In this first blog I will look at the sugar content of vegetables and how it contributes to the flavours in the baking.

Firstly, what defines a vegetable?

photo credit: Marj Joly via photopin cc
photo credit: Marj Joly via photopin cc

We can be a little more specific when defining a fruit as its botanical definition is the ovary of the flowering part of the plant; to put this more simply it is any fleshy material covering the seed, or seeds, of a plant.  In general people tend to define a vegetable as a plant used in savory meals and a fruit as a sweet option.This is a tricky one as there is no real scientific definition of a vegetable.  Although there are some generally held guidelines these too vary depending on the classification, criteria used and even the Country you live in. The most common definition of a vegetable is a plant grown for culinary use.

So far, so good, right?  However you don’t have to look too long to find that the lines are very blurred …. for example, in the botanical sense courgettes, tomatoes, pumpkins, squashes and avocados are actually fruit.  Then there is the question of whether mushrooms are vegetables (technically speaking they are not plants but fungi); and what about potatoes? Due to their high starch (carbohydrate) content they are grouped with rice, bread and pasta and are not included as one of our “five a day”.

So the truth of the matter is I cannot actually define a vegetable for you.  All I can say is that, for the purpose of this blog, I am going to lump all these in together as vegetables…. potato, tomato, courgette, even the mushroom (although as a scientist that one grates on me a little)!


Why use vegetables in (sweet) baking?

We all enjoy a nice baked cake now and again and naturally associate the sweetness of fruit with the sweet treat.  No one needs to be persuaded of the virtues of a lovely homemade apple tart!  The key to adding fruit is, primarily, to exploit and enjoy the sugar contained within.  When we think of vegetables we tend to think of a more savory dish, however vegetables do contain sugars as well as fruit, and some in quite significant amounts.  Some of the sweetest vegetables include carrots, beets, peppers, potatoes, peas and corn.  Just to give you an idea….carrots contain approximately 4 grams (g) of sugar per 100 g, while beetroot contains up to 8 g  per 100 g.  Compare this to an apple that comes in about 10 g sugar per 100 g or a strawberry, about 4.5 g per 100 g.  We begin to understand why Dee’s Beetroot Chocolate Cake was so well received by her family!

eetroot Chocolate Cake; Image credit: Greenside Up
Beetroot Chocolate Cake; Image credit: Greenside Up

What sugars do we find in vegetables?

Now we begin to realise the extent of sugars present in many vegetables, but what kind of sugars are they?


photo credit: howzey via photopin cc
photo credit: howzey via photopin cc
  • Another sugar found naturally in vegetables is Sucrose, what we know as common table salt.  Sucrose is made up of the two sugars glucose and fructose.  Most plants make sugar through the process of photosynthesis.  Vegetables make a simple sugar called glucose in this manner.  Glucose is a single sugar molecule that is the ultimate energy fuel for our brain and body.
  • Long chains of glucose form the polysaccharide known as starch.  The longer a vegetable is left on the plant the more likely it is to convert its glucose into starch for storage purposes.  We are able to consume this starch and break it back down into its glucose molecules.
  • Finally, vegetables also contain sugar in the form of fibre, known as cellulose.  We do not metabolise cellulose very well and do not absorb the component sugars into our bodies.  Fibre is a necessary part of our diet though and helps us to maintain a healthy digestive system and a balance of good bacteria within our intestine.


The Maillard reaction

So why do we consider vegetables a more savory dish if they are so full of sugar?  The answer lies in the way we cook them.  Firstly we need to understand a little of the science behind the process.

I have talked about the Maillard reaction in a previous blog, but feel it needs another mention here as it is primary to the discussion of baking, vegetables and sugar!  The Maillard reaction was developed in 1912 and is named after the French Scientist who first proposed it!  Basically it says that when you mix sugar and amino acids (protein) at high temperatures they react to form a variety of different flavours and aromas.

When we add vegetables to our baking the high temperatures of the oven allow the aldehyde group of the simple sugars found in the vegetables to react with the amino (nitrogen) group of the proteins present in the mix to create a variety of pleasant tasting compounds.

When we boil or steam vegetables the heat and moisture do not lend themselves to the browning/sweetening reaction described by Maillard, therefore they have a much more savory taste.  If you need a little convincing just try a little experiment of your own…. prepare a vegetable such as carrot, beet, squash or pepper in two ways… boil one lot and roast the other.  A quick taste test should convince you what Maillard was talking about, even if the Science is a little baffling, even to the Scientists!

Tune in next week when I will discuss how vegetables contribute to the texture of baking, while Part 3 of the series will be the “proof in the pudding” blog with lots of tasty recipes to try.

In the mean time… if you have any comments, tips or experience to share please leave a comment below; I always love to hear from you and will be sure to reply!