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.

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