Eating to Support Mental Well-being

Posted on Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

Written by Lindzie O'Reilly, MAN, Registered Dietitian

It’s long been acknowledged that the foods we eat influence our physical health. As we learn more about mental well-being, we’re learning that our food habits can also have a significant influence on our mental well-being. Many of us can relate to the physical symptoms that often accompany stress and anxiety – it’s common to experience an upset stomach or change in bowel habits. If our mental well-being can impact the function of our gut, it makes sense then that what we put into our gut can impact our mental well-being.

Changing any lifestyle habit is tough and, when it comes to food, making changes can be particularly difficult. We eat for many different reasons – for nutrients and fuel, but also for social reasons, for enjoyment, and for comfort, to name a few. On top of that, there is no one food routine that works for all individuals; it takes time and trial and error to figure out what is right for you personally. While it’s very tempting to download and attempt to follow an online meal plan titled something like “Eating Well for Mental Well-being”, that would unfortunately be ineffective for most us. The good news is that if you take the time to experiment and notice what works or does not work for you personally, you can build a food plan that will be really effective in supporting other efforts you are making (exercise, counselling, medication, meditation, etc.) to improve mental well-being. Give thought to the following ideas and how you might be able to use them to improve your food routine and personal mental well-being.

Challenge your negativity bias

We (as well as the internet and countless books on health and nutrition) are really good at identifying what we are doing ‘wrong’ and how we can ‘fix’ it. It’s a lot less common to stop and reflect on what we may be doing a pretty great job at. In the process of making positive change, it can be powerful to reflect on where our strengths lie and how we can use them to engage in habits that positively affect our mental well-being more often.

Make gradual and sustainable change

Once you decide you’re ready to make a change, it’s normal to want that to be a quick process. In an effort to move towards habits that positively support mental well-being, it’s common to try to tackle many things at once. Instead, it’s helpful to identify the things you’d like to change, and then prioritize them. Aim to change just one habit at a time so that you can sustain the change and build confidence in yourself along the way. Changing just one thing at a time also allows you the time to think about what you need to make that change and what could potentially come in your way in the process of trying to make a change.    

Focus on the big picture first

It’s common to think about foods you should eat more of, or foods you should avoid, to support or improve mental well-being. Instead of focusing on specific foods to include or avoid, it’s important to focus on your food routine first. Many of us are very busy during the day and don’t take enough time to refuel. The side effects of this include difficultly concentrating and focusing, difficulty dealing with the demands of your day (your body is focused on dealing with the stress of being hungry instead!), food cravings, and feeling very hungry or out of control around food in the evening. Matching food intake to food needs by having something to eat every 2-4 hours throughout the day will improve energy levels, concentration and mood. Arriving home at the end of the day feeling hungry and ready to eat as opposed to starving and desperate allows you to make more mindful and balanced food choices as opposed to needing to simply repay the food debt you accumulated all day.

Let’s use a couple of examples to put these three ideas into practice. To do this, let’s use the idea that eating more fresh food and less processed food can have a positive impact on mental health.

In an effort to eat less processed food, it’s common to set a goal such as “I’m never going to eat out again”. Feeling guilty about eating out, without identifying the reason why you do this, however, does not help you change the habit and only makes you feel worse about yourself. Instead, try thinking “I’m really good at packing my lunch from Monday to Wednesday, and then I buy lunch on Thursday and Friday”. If you’re like me, you tend to run out of groceries by the end of the week, leaving you with few options. Focusing on what helps you do a great job at packing a lunch three out of five days of the week can help you identify what you need to do to pack lunch all five days out of the week. This could mean taking time to make a larger dinner on Wednesday so that you can eat leftovers, or buying more of a few things when you grocery shop so that you don’t run out.

Another example could be noticing that you feel overfull and sluggish after dinner. It’s common to set a goal around reducing portion sizes at dinner or avoiding certain foods at dinner (“I’m never allowed to eat pasta again!”, “I just can’t keep cookies or ice cream in the house”). The trouble is, most of us over eat at dinner, not because we lack willpower, but because we arrive home starving at the end of the day and have a large food debt to repay. Restricting the size of dinner or skipping out on certain foods or food groups will only make you feel unsatisfied and cranky in the evening and will only cause cravings to increase. Instead, focus on positive habits you can do more of. Perhaps you’ve mastered the lunch challenge above (remember, one goal at a time before you move on to the next!). Now it may be time to move on to packing snacks to eat during the day in addition to your lunch. Great snacks could include things like fruit and yogurt, veggies and hummus, cheese and crackers, or trail mix. Adding in more nutrient dense whole foods during the day means you will be less likely to over eat or reach for processed options in the evening. Success can be measured by feeling satisfied after dinner instead of overfull, and being able to keep foods like cookies in the house and eat them from time to time.

The tips and examples above are meant to get you started. Food habits in general, and eating for mental well-being in particular, are complex topics. Join me May 9 from 11:30am-12:30pm for a Wellness@Work talk on nutrition for mental well-being to continue this conversation. Event details can be found on the "events" tab of the Wellness@Work website. 

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