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  • Writer's pictureTracey Bennett

How Healthy Eating Can Improve Our Mental Health

Updated: May 10, 2021

The pandemic has challenged us in so many ways. Social distancing and isolation, anxiety over loved ones and the constant barrage of alarming media reports has taken a huge toll. More than half of adults and two thirds of young people report a decline in their mental health. Most people have adopted negative lifestyle behaviours such as over- or under-eating as ways of coping with their emotions.

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 use food as a bit of a boost. This kind of emotional eating only gives us a short-term satisfaction and we can end up feeling even worse. Left untreated, emotional eating can lead to weight gain, low self-esteem and eating disorders. So, what can we do to help resolve this situation?

Ways of Reducing Emotional Eating and Improving Mental Health

· Be open about your feelings:

Talk 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 mantras:

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 help you to feel better about yourself.

Although our emotions can dictate what we eat, the reverse is also true; what we eat affects how we feel. Eating a healthy balanced diet can be a powerful aid for people dealing with depression and anxiety. The brain like any other organ needs the right balance of nutrients in order to function properly. So, 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. They give a temporary high which is quickly followed by an energy slump that leaves you wanting more. The more you eat these foods, the more you need to get the same amount of pleasure. Additionally, too much sugar has been associated with increased anxiety.

A diet high in processed foods full of fat, sugar and salt can multiply the unhealthy bacteria in your gut. This in turn can impact the production of serotonin, the happy hormone, which helps to regulate sleep, appetite and mood.

A poor diet can lead to a range of nutritional deficiencies that can affect your well-being. A recent study 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.

We often eat these high sugar, high fat foods between meals. Not buying these unhealthy snacks is a great first step to start the process of re-educating our taste buds. Fortunately, there are alternatives which science has shown to be helpful.

Eat healthy snacks that reduce stress and increase well-being:

1. Pumpkin seeds are rich in zinc and magnesium which reduce depression, and stress and helps create serotonin.

2. Blueberries are bursting with antioxidants and packed with vitamin C which helps to relieve stress.

3. Eat blueberries with 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 which are high in fibre which helps to relieve stress and anxiety.

5. Avocados contain choline which give a double boost of serotonin and dopamine.

6. Walnuts have numerous 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 helps reduce stress.

Eating these snacks alongside a healthy balanced diet is not a panacea for all types of mental health issues, but it’s a simple, safe and tasty way to improve your wellbeing.

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