While many of us are enjoying the return to normality, it is not uncommon to have a sense of anxiety around this new freedom. In fact, it is likely most of us will be feeling this, whether in relation to increased socialising or concern over maintaining our healthy habits. Fuelling our body correctly is key for both our mental and physical health, and nutrition plays a vital part in this. With the pace of life picking back up, perhaps cooking has taken a backseat, your meals have returned to being quick and easy plates, you are eating on the go and not enjoying so many home-cooked meals. Fear not, keeping our nutritious habits in check doesn’t need to mean restricting the “normal” life you have only just got back!
Here are my five top tips for ensuring you are still doing the best you can to support your mental wellbeing through nutrition.
Keep your gut happy
The gut acts as a major game-player in mental health by producing 90% of our happy hormone, serotonin. The gut loves variety so ensuring an abundance of plant foods can encourage optimal function, whether this means bulking out your home cooked meal with some more veg from the freezer or ordering a side of greens to accompany your restaurant meal. Ideally, we should aim for 30 different plant foods each week, including fruit, vegetables, herbs, beans and pulses.
Feed your brain with fats
Healthy brain function is vital for good mental health, and our brain is made up of 60% fats, meaning prioritising healthy fats in our diet is vital. Healthy fats should be a small part of each meal and can be found in oily fish (sardines, salmon, trout, etc), avocados, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds and good quality dairy products.
Balance your bowl
Rather than stressing about the perfect meal, focus on balancing your plate instead. Ideally this would look like 1/2 plate of non-starchy veg (e.g. carrots, broccoli, spinach), 1/4 plate quality protein, 1/4 plate starchy veg or whole-grains and a small handful of healthy fats. The end goal with designing your meals in this way is to maintain balanced blood glucose throughout the day which can have a knock on effect on your mood. By combining fats, protein and fibre with your carbohydrate intake you can slow the release of sugar into your bloodstream, avoiding the hyperactivity and subsequent crash that accompany unbalanced blood glucose.
Mindful eating is the practice of mindfulness around food, allowing you to support your digestive system function optimally and absorb the nutrients our body and brain requirefor daily life. Digestion begins from the moment we think about, see and smell our food, this triggers the release of digestive juices, such as stomach acid and enzymes. For this reason, how we eat can be as important as what we eat. Particularly useful if you find yourself eating when stressed or distracted by work, mindfulness practices can encourage the body to shift into a “rest and digest” system, where we both calm the mind and also support our digestion. Simple steps to start with are to take 5 deep breaths prior to eating, chewing thoroughly and eliminating distractions, such as phones or television while eating.
Staying sufficiently hydrated is vital to supporting mental wellbeing and cognitive function. Water accounts for an estimated 75% of brain mass, and there is little surprise that dehydration has been linked with impaired short-term memory, attention and reaction time. Aiming for two litres of non-caffeinated fluids each day is an ideal goal to begin with, this includes water, herbal tea and broths. Be mindful that caffeine and alcohol are diuretics, which may lead to dehydration if consumed in excess.
However you choose to use nutrition to support your wellbeing, make it sustainable. Food is to be enjoyed and striving for perfection can take that joy away from us. Focus on small, manageable healthy habits to create the diet and life you want!
Written by Nutritionist and Holly Health's guest writer Serena Coan BSc DipION mBANT rCNHC