Category Archives: Eating

How healthy eating can improve our mental health

It’s ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ and in lockdown, we are spending a lot of time thinking about food (at least I am) since we have to constantly provide it for our families. So I asked our expert speaker on nutrition, Tracey Bennett to explain how what we eat impacts on our mental health………

Nutrition has been sorely neglected as a factor in the development of mental health.  The brain like any other organ needs the right balance of nutrients in order to function properly.  A 30% rise in teenage depression over the last decade has been linked to too much salt from fast food and not enough potassium from fruit and vegetables.

The problem is that fast food tastes good and that combination of sugar and fat is highly addictive.  That temporary high is quickly followed by an energy slump which leaves you wanting more.  The more that you eat it the more you need to get the same amount of pleasure.  Additionally, too much sugar has been linked to reducing the protein (BDNF) which has been associated with increased anxiety. 

These foods kill the healthy bacteria in your gut which is thought to play a really important role in your mental health; serotonin which helps to regulate sleep, appetite and mood is largely produced in the gut.

Any processed foods high in fat, salt and sugar have a similar effect on your gut bacteria as well as artificial sweeteners found in so many so called ‘healthy’ foods.

 A poor diet can lead to a range of nutritional deficiencies that can affect your well-being.  A recent study in the UK showed that 92% of teenagers and 77% of adults were most at risk of an Omega 3 deficiency.  This essential fatty acid, found primarily in oily fish, has a protective effect against depression, concentration and memory problems.

It is not easy to ensure that you get the right balance of nutrients and often the problem can be what we eat between meals.  Not buying those unhealthy snacks that are difficult to ration is probably the best option as it can take up to a month to re-educate your taste buds. 

Try replacing them with healthy snacks that not only reduce stress but increase well-being:

  1. Pumpkin seeds are rich in zinc which aids depression, magnesium to reduce stress and helps to create serotonin.
  2. Blueberries are bursting with antioxidants and packed with vitamin C which helps to relieve stress.
  3. Try putting your blueberries in a natural yogurt.  They build up your healthy bacteria and have been found to have a positive effect on brain health.  A study found that not only do yoghurts reduce social anxiety in some teenagers but they also increase happiness.
  4. Natural popcorn is a tasty source of whole grains that is high in fibre which helps to relieve stress and anxiety.
  5. Avocadoes contain choline which gives you a double boost of serotonin and dopamine.
  6. Walnuts have countless benefits such as improving mood, regulating the appetite and boosting brain function.
  7. When you do fancy something sweet, dark chocolate is rich in magnesium.  Dipping fruit such as bananas or strawberries in melted dark chocolate will help to reduce stress.

Undoubtedly, what we eat affects how we feel and a healthy balanced diet can be a powerful aid for people dealing with depression and anxiety.  But the converse is also true as our emotions can dictate what we eat.  For many of us there is an internal struggle between the healthy foods that we know we should be eating and those tempting foods that we would like to be eating.  When we are feeling low, or stressed or bored we can often turn to food for a bit of a boost.  This kind of emotional overeating can also take a toll on our mental health as it doesn’t give us the comfort that we need and we end up feeling even worse.  Left untreated, emotional eating can lead to weight gain, low self-esteem and eating disorders.

Ways of Overcoming Emotional Eating and Improving Mental Health

  • Talk about your feelings:

With a friend or family member, or if you prefer write them down.  Emotional eating is often a distraction to stop you thinking unpleasant thoughts but you end up swallowing your feelings rather than dealing with them.

  • Keep a mood diary:

This will help to identify any kind of emotional eating and will give you an opportunity to develop some strategies for dealing with it.  For example, if stress is your trigger have some activities in mind for when this might happen such as engaging in meditation and other relaxation techniques.

  • Get Moving:

Exercise boosts our endorphins and makes us feel good.  It also reduces the stress hormone cortisol leading to a reduction in depression, anxiety and insomnia.

  • Limit your exposure to social media:

Social media can distort your attitude to body image and make you feel bad about yourself and much more likely to comfort eat.

  • Use affirmations:

Every time you have a negative thought about yourself, try using simple affirmations to encourage yourself such as ‘it is the inner person that counts’ or ‘I can do anything’.  They have been shown to positively rewire the brain and enhance your mood.

  • Help others:

Doing something for someone else will definitely help you to feel better about yourself.

Using these strategies alongside a healthy balanced diet is not necessarily a panacea for all types of mental health issues as your first step may be getting help from a doctor.  Nevertheless, in conjunction with any other medical advice, they will help to boost the improvements.

Of course we serve as essential role models for our children, so they will be influenced by how we eat.

Tracey Bennett delivers a very popular session on Healthy Eating Matters: How to instil healthy eating habits in our children.

Please get in touch for further details.

Reducing the chance of eating disorders

How to reduce the chance of children developing eating disorders

The very word ‘eating disorder’ is enough to strike fear in most parents.  Latest estimates suggest that 1.25 million people have an eating disorder and that adolescence is the most likely time for this to develop.   

What is an eating disorder?

At the heart of all eating disorders is an unhealthy attitude to food.  The most common eating disorders are:

  1. Anorexia Nervosa – characterised by not eating enough and often excessive exercising
  2. Bulimia Nervosa – overeating followed by vomiting and laxatives in order not to gain weight
  3. Binge Eating Disorder – compulsive overeating that feels out of control

There are varying degrees of gravity for all of these and it is not always easy to determine when your child ‘tips over’ from healthy eating to problem eating, and then into a full- blown eating disorder.  The bottom line is, if you feel that food is dominating your child’s life, your best action is to seek treatment, as early intervention gives the best chance of recovery.

Why does someone get an eating disorder?

There is no one over-riding cause to why someone develops an eating disorder; there is a combination of influences such as genetics, family experiences and culture.  Parents don’t give their children an eating disorder, but there is much they can do to help reduce the chances of their children developing one.  

What can parents do? 

Parents’ main role is to create a positive home environment by:

  • Setting the right goals – ensure that the aspirations that you have for your child are not based on appearance and that you do not give the impression that you will love them more if ‘only they ate less’.  This includes paying more attention to what they say and do rather than what they look like.
  • Speaking your mind – we are all exposed to some pretty toxic ideas about body image.  This particularly applies to social media which bombards us with images that can distort our children’s attitude to body size.  We need to educate our children that there is no such thing as the perfect body and that prejudice against people who are overweight is wrong.  Too much time spent trying to achieve unattainable beauty is only going to lead to feelings of failure and is limiting your child’s development in more meaningful areas.  Recent research showed that an intervention for women with eating disorders, that encouraged them to criticise negative media images that associated appearance with self-worth, significantly reduced their negative feelings about themselves. 
  • Being comfortable with your own body shape – the more complete you are as parents with your own body, irrespective of size – the less likely you are to imply that having a less than ideal body shape is something to feel ashamed about.
  • Talking about feelings – eating disorders are a way of coping with difficult feelings, so encourage children to understand and express their emotions rather than placate them with food.  This will give you an opportunity to teach them strategies to use when they are feeling frustrated, angry or sad.  For example, taking a deep breath, talking the issue through with an adult, or even asking for a hug.
  • Being a good role model – you are their biggest influence.  If you pick at your food, criticise your own body and are constantly on a diet, your children will copy these unhelpful behaviours.
  • Not putting them on a diet – dieting rarely works and often affects self-esteem.  Most eating disorders start with a diet.  There can also be loads of other health implications such as stunted growth, osteoporosis and delayed puberty. 
  • Keeping children a healthy weight – overweight teenagers have a much higher risk of developing an eating disorder, but often its symptoms go unnoticed because they are masked by being overweight. 
  • Exercising for the right reasons – exercise is an important part of good health, but if you are spending hours in the gym each day trying to get the ‘perfect’ body then this will give children the wrong messages.
  • Boosting their self-esteem – this is probably the most important factor that protects children from developing an eating disorder.  One of the best ways to do this is by offering children choices, particularly as eating disorders often develop as a way of trying to take control of their lives.  Try offering them an array of healthy foods and let them serve themselves.  Even better get them involved in cooking healthy food.

Not only will these behaviours help to reduce the chances of your children developing an eating disorder but they are also great ways for maintaining a healthy attitude to weight and food for all the family.

Article by Tracey Bennett, specialist in Obesity & Weight Management

How to encourage good eating habits

Every term I run a 10 week parenting course for a small group of parents. In recent weeks, the topic of mealtimes has come up a lot so I thought this would be a good one to address in my blog. Parents often mention issues such as the fact that their child either eats painfully slowly or too fast, has a very limited diet and won’t try new foods or won’t eat independently. They feel caught between not wanting to make a big deal or draw attention to eating habits but also worrying that their child maybe won’t put on weight, will put on too much weight or may wake up hungry in the night if they don’t give alternative options.

The child’s school and education will also play a role here, where children learn from teachers how to eat properly with a knife and fork, take their plates and respect their food.

Here are my top tips to encourage good eating habits for children.

Some top tips

1. Only offer healthy foods. The parent chooses what the child eats but the child chooses how much.

2. Don’t make a big issue about food or fight over it. They may eat more one day and less the next.  Focus and comment on the positives, not what they are doing wrong.

3. Repeatedly serve tiny amounts and a variety of food they don’t like, such as vegetables. Just leave a tiny bit on their plate. Children eat what is served in their house. Accept that a food may need to be introduced numerous times before they are willing to try it.

4. Don’t reward a child for eating something they don’t like with a treat after such as desert or ice cream. This may reinforce the idea that desert is good and fish is bad.

5. Involve children in preparing food as much as possible. Cook together, look at recipes etc.

6. Go out to buy food together, particularly the greengrocer or pick your own. Plant a vegetable garden. Involve them in writing a shopping list, even if only mark making.

7. Share family meals together as often as possible and serve everyone the same food.

8. Role play restaurants and serving in a supermarket or play the tasting game.

9. Never force a child to eat a food or insist on ‘one bite’ – this causes power struggles. Stay neutral.

10. Hide fruit and vegetables in pasta sauces, smoothies, muffins etc

11. Think about your eating habits – you serve as a role model. Don’t talk about dieting or good and bad foods. Just try to model eating a healthy, balanced diet.

12. Most toddlers don’t like their food to touch. Serve it in a muffin tin or make food patterns

13. Sit down with your child and if they are old enough to understand, establish together some clear rules about mealtimes. Write these down, framed in the positive and refer to them before the meal until they become more of a habit. Make sure you use the rules to address the difficult issues such as taking time too long to eat, trying something new, staying at the table etc.