How to eat well for your mental health
It can be difficult to know where to start when trying to make the right food and nutrition choices.
Which macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) are best to consume and the quantity? There is so much conflicting information out there, all on the end of a simple google search.
How do we know which of this information is right, or good for us? One minute we’re told fats are the devil, the next minute they’re the latest best thing. Celery juice can heal all ills, and this or that diet is the golden ticket to optimal health.
Eating well can help with mental health symptoms
We get used to living with symptoms like tiredness, insomnia, stress and anxiety, digestive issues such as abdominal pain, bloat and constipation, or weight gain and brain fog. These can so easily become our ‘normal’. Along with 7 - 8 hours of quality sleep, good stress management, regular exercise and adequate hydration (2 litres of hydrating liquids per day) a balanced whole food diet with an emphasis on unprocessed plant foods is a great way of managing the above types of symptoms and can help in the prevention of developing chronic illness and disease.
Why processed foods can contribute to our mental health problems
Obviously there are certain foods that are better for us, foods our bodies can recognise and work with, which don’t have lists of ingredients we’ve never heard of. One of the issues with the typical western diet is that many of the foods we now eat are so highly processed, that they are no longer recognised by our bodies as food/fuel. They are devoid of the vitamins and minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants required for the basic functioning of our physiological health.
Add poor sleep, stress, environmental toxins and lack of exercise into the mix, and we have a society rife with chronic illness, autoimmune disease and various cancers. Our genetics literally haven’t caught up with the speed of our human evolution.
This may all sound a little overwhelming. The good news is that there is a lot we can do by simply making the right food choices. So, let’s go back to basics, and look at the balance of our macronutrient consumption, their quality, and their importance in our overall health.
I’ve approached this by addressing questions that I often get asked in clinic by my clients
1. “What oils/fats should I be eating, and how should I cook with them?”
This is a very good question!
Fats were demonised in the 1970’s, and with this came an increase in ‘low fat’ food products, highly processed alternatives such as margarine, essentially made to imitate butter. These foods contain food additives including emulsifiers and colorants, and used to contain trans fats. This negative thinking around fats went on for years, with healthy fats taking a hammering too. It turns out that healthy fats are essential for our optimal health and the functioning of many bodily processes. Nearly 60% of our brains are made up of fat, every human cell contains a phospholipid bilayer for structure and efficient cellular communication, our digestion, healthy gut microbiome, skin, and the creation of our steroid hormones all rely on healthy fats.
So, when asked this question I think about which fats are good to consume regularly, which are ok to be heated for cooking and which should be avoided all together.
The jury is still out on saturated fats. These are solid at room temperature and include butter, ghee, tallow/lard, coconut oil and cacao butter. Where possible the fats derived from animals should be organic and from grass fed animals; these will be less inflammatory in the body. All saturated fats can handle higher cooking temperatures due to their molecular structure. Use them, but in moderation.
Extra virgin olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats, loaded with powerful antioxidants and is a staple in the Mediterranean diet, which is well known for it’s health benefits and longevity. You can cook with it but keep the heat low, once it reaches smoking point the oil becomes damaged and can cause oxidative damage and inflammation in the body. Steam fry veggies with a little water and garlic then add a good drizzle of olive oil.
Polyunsaturated fats; vegetable, rapeseed, sunflower, palm, canola are often used in processed foods because they are abundant and cheap. They are in foods which are claimed to be the ‘healthy option’, such as hummus or lentil crisps or plant based milks which often tend to include sunflower or rapeseed oil. These types of oils are easily damaged, by their processing, packaging, travel and storage (sunlight), and are usually oxidised or rancid before they even make it into our kitchens. It is best to avoid these types of oils altogether.
Flaxseed/linseed and avocado oil are beneficial and best used cold on salads or soups. Always buy these and olive oil in dark containers.
Healthy fats from whole foods include all coconut products, nuts and seeds (chia), avocados, full fat yogurt, dark chocolate, fatty fish, whole eggs and olives.
2. “How much protein should I be eating and what plant foods contain protein?”
It’s all about the protein!
Proteins play many critical roles in the body and are crucial to good health. The name comes from the Greek word proteos, meaning ‘primary’ or ‘first place’. Much of their use is on a cellular level where they perform various roles. They are needed for growth and maintenance of tissues and muscle mass. Our enzymes are made of proteins. Some of our hormones are proteins. They provide structure for our cells and tissues such as collagen. They help with our immune health, transport and store nutrients, balance our blood sugar levels and provide us with energy.
Protein is also the most filling of the macronutrients regulating cravings and therefore helping maintain a steady and healthy weight.
This is why we need to focus on getting enough protein with our meals, good quality protein and a good selection of plant based proteins. We are unlikely to be protein deficient but a lot of us could probably do with more protein in our diet.
Meats - keep red meat to a minimum, where possible go for organic and grass fed. It should be a treat not something to be consumed on a daily or even weekly basis.
Poultry - again go for free range or organic if possible avoiding antibiotics, and unwanted hormones.
Fish - is best line caught and wild. Smaller fish like sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring (SMASH fish) are a higher source of omega 3 fatty acids containing DHA, good for brain health and EPA for inflammation. One tin of sardines or mackerel (around 21g) is a good quantity for a meal.
Eggs are a fantastic whole food, a great source of protein and high in choline which is essential for brain development and function. 1 egg is around 6grams of protein.
Good sources of plant proteins to add into your daily diet include, chickpeas, lentils, peas, edamame beans, nuts and seeds, tempeh, tofu and oats.
3. “What’s the difference between simple carbohydrates and complex ones?”
Carbohydrates seem to be the current macro in the firing line. Fashionable diets such as the ketogenic diet or caveman/paleo have helped with this demonisation. With an increase in things like diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer, there has been a focus on the devastating effects the typical western diet is having on the populations health.
The recently coined phrase ‘Carbotarian’, relates to those who live on ‘simple’ carbohydrates (carbs) such as rice, pasta, bread, potatoes, pies, cakes, cereals and biscuits. These fast release carbs easily spike our blood sugar. However, complex carbs are an essential part of a balanced diet and contain things like soluble fibres required for optimal digestive function and a healthy gut microbiome . They still turn into glucose in the body but supply a much slower release of energy and don’t cause spikes in our blood sugar making for much more regulated mood and energy levels.
4. “How do I possibly survive without my comfort foods” I hear you cry?
Well, for a start if you try decreasing the simple carbs and replacing those with other things, you should notice a difference in energy levels, which should encourage you to continue with the changes you’ve made.
Some simple carbohydrate swaps - White potatoes - sweet pots, cauliflower mash, roast other veg.
Flours - coconut flour, ground almonds, buckwheat, milled flax with seeds; pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, hemp or chia for bread.
Rice or couscous - cauliflower and/or other veg pulsed in the food processor.
Pasta - made by putting courgettes or carrots though a spiraliser, if you don’t have one you could use a peeler and make ribbons, or most supermarkets sell ready made bags.
Cakes and biscuits - have as a treat and use the above mentioned flour alternatives, coconut oil and a decreased amount of sweetener; xylitol, stevia, honey or maple syrup.
Cereals - smoothies, berries, eggs with flax bread. Try to think about breakfast as any other meal, cereals are highly processed, have very little protein and don’t keep you feeling full for long.
Simple snack swaps
- A handful of berries
- Carrot and veg sticks with hummus
- lightly toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds tossed in soy sauce
- Kale chips
- Celery and nut butter
- trail mix: nuts, seeds, goji berries, seaweed
- couple of squares of dark chocolate
Wellness pearls to take away
• Give your digestion a rest by trying overnight fasting. Eat your last meal early, 6 or 7pm then don’t eat until 8 or 9am the following day.
• Aim for 6-7 portions of veg per day, a portion is two cupped together hands full.
• Try to avoid carb heavy sugary snacks as these will only increase symptoms and tiredness.
About the author
I’m Ione, a fully qualified and insured nutritional therapist. I love to share ideas, empower, educate and support people in achieving their health goals allowing clients to be more actively involved in their own healing.
Naturopathic nutrition is the application of nutrition science in the promotion of good health. It uses a range of tools to assess and identify nutritional imbalances and other potential causes of symptoms. This information is used to develop a personalised plan including food, nutraceutical and lifestyle recommendations.
I offer a free 20 minute discovery call to help you decide if this is the right approach for you. My clinics are in person or via zoom.
For more information please visit www.dartmoorfoodclinic.com
07739 691 648
Or find me on Instagram or Facebook
Read Claire's blog: Why do I eat junk food when I'm stressed?