By Jess Young
Nutrition is confusing right? One day you’ll hear that a certain food is super and will solve all your problems, and the next day you hear that it’s poison… Look, I’m qualified in food and even I can get confused sometimes! But don’t worry – I always come back to the basics and keep it super simple, because sometimes (all the time), simple is best!
As promised, below I’ve listed my top 5 things that you can do to look after your mental health simply with the food you eat!
ONE: Increase the Protein
As I explained in my previous post, the chemicals in our brain that mediate and moderate our moods are predominantly made from protein. Of course, they need the help of other vitamins and minerals to do so, but the key player in a happy mind is protein! Not to mention it really helps with keeping you fuller for longer!
Protein is the hardest thing (meaning it takes the most energy) for our digestive systems to digest, and it is for this reason that protein does a wonderful job at keeping you full for a long time as it takes longer than other things to go through the process of breaking down. Did someone say good-bye three-thirty-itis!?
Try to Include protein at every meal (especially breakfast) and you’ll find that it helps to keep your energy, concentration and tummy stable throughout the day, as well as giving your brain what it needs to make enough of those very important chemicals. Protein comes from a variety of sources, from both plants and animals, but I’ve listed some of the best ones below:
Lean meats (meaning minimal fat)
Eggs (my personal fav!)
Poultry and seafood
Legumes (Chickpeas, Red Lentils and Kidney Beans)
TWO: Increase the Fibre
Okay, I’m just going to start with this: Fibre is SO IMPORTANT. The health of your gut can literally determine the health of the rest of your body. It is responsible for digesting, absorbing and then beginning the transporting of the nutrients we consume from food, before expelling waste and toxins. If something along the way isn’t working as it should, there’s a good chance your body won’t receive the nutrients it needs, or won’t expel toxins quick enough, of which both can have significant impacts on our overall health. That’s where fibre comes in!
Fibre refers to the indigestible parts of foods, which initially makes it sound like we shouldn’t eat them if we can’t digest them right? But don’t worry, let me explain:
There are two types of fibre:
INSOLUBLE: Insoluble fibre cannot be dissolved in water, and therefore passes through the digestive tract basically unchanged. As it does this, it cleans the digestive system and adds bulk to the stool. SOLUBLE: Soluble fibre absorbs water into the stool as it passes through the digestive system, making it softer and easier to pass; thus, reducing the chances of constipation and toxins hanging around for too long.
Both types of fibre can be also be called prebiotics, which means they feed the bacteria within our intestines that are responsible for the further digestion and absorption of nutrients. If the good bacteria in our intestines aren’t fed, it can lead to an overgrowth of bad bacteria, which is often the root cause of things like allergies and intolerances, and inadequate nutrient absorption.
Nuts and seeds
Wheat bran & wholegrains
Fruits and Vegetables (especially when the skin is left on)
Psyllium husk & chia seeds (I put these in my smoothie everyday)
THREE: Increase the Omega-3s
Did you know that the majority of the brain is made up of fat? To be more specific, it’s actually made up of a type of Omega 3’s! Simply by knowing just this one fact, it makes it a lot easier to comprehend the importance of consuming this nutrient.
Omega 3 is a type of fat, and fats can be categorised by their degree of saturation, which simply refers to how many hydrogen atoms are attached to the molecule. To make it more simple for you, fats are broken down into three different categories:
Unsaturated (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated)
Omega 3’s (full name: Omega 3 Fatty Acids) and Omega 6 Fatty Acids are categorised as the most unsaturated type of fat and are classified as ‘essential’ because they cannot be made by the body, and have to come through diet alone. So what makes them so good?
The role they play in the brain is indispensable: they help with improving memory, and can prevent diseases such as Parkinson’s and Dementia; they also contribute significantly to mood control and maintenance. There has been an incredible discovery lately regarding the link between Omega 3 and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, finding that those who maintain adequate levels of Omega 3 saw the symptoms and effects of these issues significantly improve. Wow! Not only that, but Omega 3’s are amazing at reducing inflammation in the body, and especially in the gut, meaning they help your gut lining to stay strong and your gut bugs to stay healthy!
Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and tuna
FOUR: Decrease the Refined Sugar
Before you get mad, I didn’t say cut it out… Coming from a major sweet tooth over here, I understand the need for a little indulgence every now and then! But what we don’t normally realise is the havoc refined sugars can cause for our blood sugar levels, which in turn affect our concentration, energy levels, and can increase the symptoms of depression (when the sugar low hits) and anxiety (when the sugar high hits).
In today’s day and age, escaping the clutches of sugar can definitely be a challenge, as it is in almost everything; the good news is, that living a low-sugar life is definitely possible. The human body doesn’t need much sugar to maintain blood sugar levels: it gets what it needs through the various sources of carbohydrates we consume in our diet - such as fruit, breads and pastas etc. - that it doesn’t need any added sugar. The easiest thing to do is start at the beginning, by removing the most obvious sugar-laden foods from your diet; such as biscuits, lollies, cakes etc. Then replace them with pieces of fruit, Greek yoghurt with a drizzle of honey and blueberries, or even get creative and make some ‘bliss balls’. Replacing nutrient-lacking refined foods that are just going to spike and then crash your blood sugar levels with nutrient dense whole-foods will significantly improve your mental health.
If you take ONE THING away from this post – let it be this step. Reducing sugar won’t just greatly assist with depression and anxiety, but will also improve your overall health as well, which is always a win!
Trust me on this one, and try it out for yourself for a couple of weeks – I promise you won’t regret it!
FIVE: Decrease the Caffeine (sorry…)
It definitely does pain me to write this one, because my day doesn’t start until I’ve had my morning cup, BUT there are some important things to consider when it comes to your caffeine intake.
Caffeine affects everyone differently, but it is not uncommon for it to exacerbate the effects of anxiety in particular, making you shaky, nervous and unable to concentrate properly. Caffeine affects our Sympathetic Nervous System by stimulating our adrenal glands to produce adrenaline in preparation for a fight or flight, when there is no real threat. Anxiety also affects our Sympathetic Nervous System, and puts the sufferer into fight or flight mode as well as stimulating all of the body’s survival responses. When your body is already responding to a ‘threat’ with anxiety, adding caffeine to the mix really doesn’t help, and in fact can easily make things worse. If you’re having multiple cups of coffee a day, it’s likely that you’re not doing much at all to help your anxiety. Limiting yourself to one coffee a day is recommended, even going without it for a couple of weeks to give your body some time, would greatly benefit.
Not only does caffeine affect your nervous system, but it can also be one of the most common irritants for you gut, which can quickly lead to inflammation. Inflammation affects the integrity of the gut wall and can impact the health of your digestive system – which, as previously mentioned, can lead a whole host of issues. SO do your body & mind a favour and reduce your caffeine intake for a while, before introducing it back into your diet.
Well done for making it this far! I know this post had a lot of information, but I truly believe that if implemented, will greatly help you in your Mental Health journey. Know that I believe you, and you’re not alone. Our God is the God of restoration, and has an incredible way of using our struggles as testimonies for those who come after us. So keep faithful, keep believing in God’s plan for you life, and look after yourself & your mind!
Jess Young is a degree-qualified Nutritionist passionate about relieving Mental Health Illness. You can learn more about Jess at Young Consumption or follow her at @youngconsumption. Read Can Food Really Help Your Mental Health? by Jess.