We are beginning to understand more and more about how our nutrition interacts with our mental health, from supporting the production of important brain chemicals to the role that diet plays in feeding the good bacteria in our gut and the role they play in our mental and overall health. What we already know is that eating regularly and healthily can support you in a positive way.
When you are feeling mentally or physically unwell very often that’s not the time that you break out the recipes and get cooking – it can be very difficult to maintain good habits or routines with your diet and exercise when you may feel unable to plan, shop, organise or cook.
Managing mental health is dynamic, involving physical activity, counselling, medication, support from friends, family, support groups and the nutrients that our diet provides play their part in this mix.
Making some small changes to your diet can help give you the energy to make positive decisions in order to support your mental health. As we all know, as human beings we are complex and it may be the food or maybe just taking action that can be the beginning of making us feel a little bit better.
Here is a little toolkit to help make a start
Get the day started by eating breakfast – try to include a wholegrain cereal, some dairy (including plant based sources), plenty of fluids and some fruit. It seems logical, but you can’t expect yourself to feel mentally alert and able in the morning when you have been fasting all night. Get the day off to an easier start by beginning to provide your brain and your body with some balanced fuel.
From here, try to eat regularly including lunch and evening meal, maybe having some fruit, healthy nuts, or small amounts of protein between your meals.
Choose slow-release sources of carbohydrate in order to provide fuel throughout the day.
Our brain runs on glucose so when our mood is low we might reach for a quick fix that is high in sugar. Not having enough fuel for our brain makes us feel weak, tired, and can even make you feel like you have “brain fog”. It is preferable to supply your brain with regular slow release carbohydrates such as wholegrains, oats, wholemeal bread, fruits, beans and lentils. Trying to include these in your main meals and snacks can help to balance your mood through the day.
Include healthy fats
Getting the right balance of fats is really important.
Again when we are not feeling mentally or physically well, we can start eating foods high in fat. Our brain is approximately 50% fat and needs an adequate supply of good fats in order to ensure that it is well nourished and able to function. Try to reduce your intake of saturated fats through reducing the amounts of processed meats, convenience foods, biscuits and cakes you are eating.
It is thought that the omega-3 oils that are found in oily fish may help with depression. Try to include up to 2 portions per week of oily fish such as salmon, mackerel (now that it’s in season), herring, sardine, pilchards and trout.
Include protein in your main meals
Protein is not only important for helping maintain our immune system, healing and repair and muscle mass it can also help us to feel fuller for longer and can help in the production of some important brain chemicals. Include protein at each of your main meals. Sometimes people find it helpful to have small amounts of protein such as an egg or beans at breakfast also. Good sources of protein are lean meat and poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, lentils, beans and tofu.
Between meal snacks – to help support energy and manage appetite
Include fruit that you enjoy, vegetables, nuts, oatcakes or crackers with low-fat cheese or small portions of meat or fish,
Stay well hydrated
Aiming for 6 to 8 glasses or 1.5 to 2 litres of fluid each day. Nobody feels energised or mentally alert when they are dehydrated. Keep it simple, drink a mix of water and herbal teas and try to reduce the amount of caffeine that you are drinking.
Caffeine, found in coffee, cola and energy drinks, is often called a ‘drug’ as it acts as a stimulant. Too much caffeine can cause you to feel irritable and most importantly can affect the quality of your sleep.
Vitamins and minerals – should you take a supplement?
It is important to try to get these vitamins and minerals from your diet as their absorption is supported by other components in food.
When you are not eating at nutrient-rich diet, your body will lack vital vitamins and minerals, often affecting your energy, mood and brain function. Below is a guide to increasing some sources of these in your diet.
Missing vitamin/mineral: Thiamine B1, Niacin B3 or Cobalamin B12 (all B vitamins)
Dietary sources: Foods fortified with B vitamins, wholegrain cereals, meat, fish, eggs and dairy or some fortified plant based milks.
Missing vitamin/mineral: Folate
Dietary sources: Folate is found in liver, green vegetables, oranges citrus fruits, beans, yeast extract and fortified breakfast cereals.
Missing vitamin/mineral: Selenium
Dietary sources: Brazil nuts, meat, fish, seeds and wholemeal bread.
Missing vitamin/mineral: Vitamin D
Dietary sources: Supplementation is recommended in Ireland: 800iu per day for adults. Small amounts are available from diet based sources such as eggs, oily fish and foods fortified with vitamin D (some dairy milks, breakfast cereals and plant based milks).
In a nutshell
Eat regularly throughout the day to provide yourself with energy for your brain and your body. Make sure that you are having wholegrains; plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables include sources of healthy fats and oily fish. Keep yourself hydrated by sipping water throughout the day. Decide on a simple structure that you can achieve in terms of regular meals and healthy snacks.
If you need support to get started then the Clinical Dietitian dietetic service at the Galway Bay Medical Centre, Queens Gate, Dock Road, Galway is here to help.
Contact Aisling Snedker RD, Clinical & Sports Nutrition Dietitian, on 087-6576610, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or see www.clinicaldietitian.ie
The Galway Independent accepts no liability arising from the publication of the material in this column. Answers provided are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.