By Lauren Presutti
Taking care of our mental health can involve a myriad of different strategies and finding the specific ones that work well for us is critical. With so many options for fostering wellness – from talk therapy, recreation therapy, support groups, time spent in nature, a focus on journaling, medication, a plan for self-care, building a support system, or any other intentional effort to improve your mental health – sometimes we have to use trial and error before discovering what helps us the most. Nonetheless, we all have basic needs – diet, exercise, and sleep – and there are standard wellness practices for each of these three areas that I like to address with my clients as a starting point. It may sound simple, but assessing your basic needs is an important prerequisite to living better. Today I will focus on diet, and my next two blogs will address exercise and sleep.
Let’s start by talking about what it means to have a well-balanced diet. To feel our best both physically and mentally, we should focus on having a variety of nutrients in our meals, including plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, legumes, nuts, and lean proteins. A Mediterranean-style diet, which is rich in lean protein, whole grains, olive oil, and fruits and vegetables, has been studied and consistently found to protect mental health and guard against depression. Other “brain-boosting” nutrients include Omega-3 Fatty Acids, B Vitamins, Vitamin K, and Zinc, which can help with mental alertness, memory, and concentration.
Avoid consuming “empty calories,” or foods that don’t provide adequate nutrition, such as processed foods, desserts, energy drinks and sodas, chips, and candy, as these can lead to “sugar highs” followed by periods of depression, cravings, and sluggishness. Specifically, sugar, caffeine, and greasy foods are known to contribute to anxiety. It’s okay to indulge yourself once in a while, but moderation is key.
During a stressful day, have you ever skipped sitting down for a balanced meal and decided to grab fast food on the road instead? Or maybe there is no time for lunch, so you double up on coffee and call it good. Most of us are crunched for time and these habits are tempting, but it’s important to notice the impact on our mental health. Lethargic afternoons at work because your body lacks nutrients might mean you end up working longer hours, cutting into your downtime. Or, when you get home from work, you might be so drained from poor nutrition that you crash on the couch all night, instead of doing stimulating activities good for your mental health, like bike-riding around your neighborhood, doing a craft, or playing a game with your kids. Eating well throughout the day provides fuel for your body and brain to function properly. Sometimes it might feel like a chore, but prioritizing time for meals can significantly improve your energy and mood throughout the week.
It’s also important to avoid over-eating or under-eating. When feeling depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, people are more likely to notice a change in their normal eating habits. Binge eating is common when food is used as a self-soothing method. Although it might feel comforting in the moment, most people with binge eating habits end up feeling more fatigued, more insecure due to weight gain, more unable to cope with life’s difficulties, and more likely to experience guilt, shame, and frustration. On the other hand, some people may lack an appetite when feeling overwhelmed and eat too little. These individuals may experience unhealthy weight loss, malnutrition, and difficulty concentrating. And similar to the effects of binge eating, people who eat too little might feel more fatigued, unable to cope with life’s difficulties, and more likely to experience frustration.
To avoid risk of either over-eating or under-eating, try to listen to what your body needs by eating slowly and monitoring how “full” you feel. You may also benefit from asking friends or family members for help with accountability. If you or the people in your life are concerned about your eating habits, reach out to a mental health professional. Unhealthy eating habits can increase your risk of developing serious eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia, which cause significant health problems and can even be fatal if left untreated. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – getting better is worth it!
Finally, some tips and tricks to improve your mental health and eating habits. Most people find it stressful to prep meals after work each night, so consider doing meal prep on the weekends and have everything ready to go for the week ahead. Heating up food each night Monday through Friday instead of starting from scratch not only spares you the stress of making dinner decisions, but also will save you tons of prep time and cleanup time. It’s also helpful to stay hydrated with a refillable water bottle to keep with you all day. It’s so easy to forget the importance of drinking water, but keeping an eye on your water intake will help you stay alert and focused throughout the day, helping you avoid physical and mental burnout. When grocery shopping, try to concentrate your shopping on the perimeter of the store where the fresh and frozen foods are, rather than in the center aisles where chips, cookies, cake boxes, and candy are stocked.
Most importantly, be patient with yourself. Avoid perfectionism and remember that we all experience fluctuations in our efforts to be well. Be proud of yourself for learning about the connection between mental health and eating habits – use what you have learned to make small changes where you can and talk about your journey with others. Often, we learn the most by sharing our experiences with each other, so don’t be afraid to open up about your eating habits and brainstorm behavioral changes to improve your body and mind.