In a world filled with uncertainties, we all need effective coping strategies to manage our stress levels and keep our lives on track. The notion of self-care is to help relieve stress and anxiety and foster positivity. By integrating self-care activities into your routine, you can bolster your mood and mental health, and reduce the physical toll of stress.
Good nutrition can also play a role in self-care. Eating well is another strategy to build your resilience and help you find your zen.
Research shows that eating well can profoundly impact our cognition, concentration, mood, and stress levels. So, it’s obvious that food not only nourishes the body but also the brain.
Nutrition and stress
Stress triggers our body to release a series of hormones — often known as “fight or flight” mode — where our body prepares to handle what it perceives to be the “threat” at hand. This includes raising our blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels to be primed to act.
While our bodies can deal with short bursts of stress, when we’re constantly living a stressful life, our ability to thwart our stress responses becomes fatigued. This can lead us to feel sluggish, run-down, and regularly reach for energy-dense foods as our body looks for a quick energy boost.
Foods such as candy, potato crisps, cookies, and the like might give us a burst of energy in the short term; however, the metabolic response can cause our blood sugar to spike. Fluctuations in blood sugars can leave us feeling even more tired and sluggish. Long term, regularly choosing highly processed, nutrient-poor foods can impact the gut microbiome by limiting the diversity of gut bacteria, lowering immune function, negatively influencing mood, and compromising overall health.
Opting for foods that both nourish and are slowly metabolized supports well-being and helps build the body’s resilience. Think fruit, vegetables, lean meat, and fish, as well as plant-based proteins, nuts and seeds, whole grains, dairy, and dairy alternatives.
Nutrition and mental health
New and exciting research shows food choices may impact long-term mental health. While diet may be just one piece of the complex mental health puzzle, it is one we can control through our daily food choices.
It’s important to note that the overall quality of our diets matters most, not specific foods or a single nutrient. We need to see nutrition as the result of daily food choices over the long term.
Current research in nutritional psychology shows that adopting a healthy diet, particularly the Mediterranean Diet, may improve mood and well-being in the long term. The Mediterranean Diet primarily consists of plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, oily fish (such as salmon, halibut, and anchovies), legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. The predominant fat source in the diet comes from olive oil.
One mechanism by which foods may impact the brain and mood is via the gut microbiome; these are the various “good” bacteria colonies that live in the digestive system. The digestive system is directly linked to the brain and studies are also examining the role of foods on fighting inflammation and the role this may play on mood and well-being. The Mediterranean diet is already well established as beneficial for high blood pressure, heart disease, type two Diabetes Mellitus, and dementia. So, it’s a win-win.
Fostering a healthy relationship with food
For many of us, food itself can trigger stress. We are inundated with conflicting messages about what to eat, creating unhelpful feelings toward food and our bodies. Yet, reconnecting with food and rediscovering the joy of eating can also help reduce stress.
It is essential to recognize that food is so much more than a source of nutrition. It sparks memories, fuels conversation, connects us to our culture, and can transport us to the other side of the world one mouthful at a time. Fostering a healthy relationship with food is yet another example of good self-care. Becoming a more intuitive eater does take time, but the benefits can be liberating.
Nutrition science is constantly evolving. Research shows that what we eat can impact every facet of our wellbeing and health. Making mindful food choices and eating to fuel our bodies physically and mentally can impact health holistically.
There are numerous ways to promote good self-care. But, next time you’re feeling the pinch, consider a cup of tea, a handful of nuts, a piece of fruit or a tub of yogurt over a less nutritious alternative. It may give you the advantage to help keep stress eating at bay.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.
Joel Feren, The Nutrition Guy, is an Australian-based Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Accredited Nutritionist with a background in biomedical science. He specializes in men’s health and is a media spokesperson for Dietitians Australia.