Imagine waking up in Costa Rica to a hearty and sustaining breakfast of Gallo Pinto (rice/beans) with some eggs, beef, fried plantains and maybe a tortilla made with non-GMO corn soaked in lime for better digestibility and B3 availability. Or, perhaps you wake up in Togo, West Africa, and start your day off with beans drizzled with nutrient-rich palm oil and Garri – fermented and ground mineral-rich cassava root. Or again, you awaken in Japan to a calming and gut-healthy traditional breakfast of eggs, fish, spinach, rice and seaweed soup. I suggest these meals might do good things for our mood balance.
Now, contrast that to waking up in a typical home in North America where a quarter of the population is treated for a psychiatric disorder (compared to 4% in non-Western countries) and where chronic health issues related to diet and lifestyle as well as rates of autoimmunity increase steadily. In this home everyone is rushing and lucky if they wolf down any breakfast at all. Perhaps the kids gulp down some sugary cereal and a glass of juice or the adults grab a toasted bagel with cream cheese and a double-double on the run. Then go searching for a caffeine-sugar fix an hour and a half later when they experience a blood sugar crash.
We tend to be a scattered, frenetic, anxious people and the way that we eat, and the value that we place on nutrition, plays a huge role in our less than optimal health and well being. On whether or not we walk through life generally calm or chronically stressed.
And it isn’t just WHAT we eat, either. It is HOW we eat. On the run, at our desks, in our vehicles. Kids in some Canadian schools get from 10- 20 minutes to gulp down a bit of lunch (which often consists of more sugar and chemicals). And the slower eaters return home ravenous because they didn’t have time to nourish themselves throughout the day. North American adults skip meals or pick at food throughout the day, never really pausing to nourish themselves properly. Sometimes this is due to work pressures, other times because individuals want to lose weight and are afraid to actually feed themselves. But this is also a taught behavior and seems ‘normal’ in our society.
It may be the norm here, but then I don’t strive for normal!
Many other countries around the world still understand the primordial need to slow down and pause for life-giving nourishment. Meal time isn’t just something we ought to rush through to get to the real business of life. It IS the real business of life. It calms and strengthens our bodies and minds. Gives us a chance to breathe, connect with family and friends, rest and then return to our work or learning with renewed vigor and attention.
In French culture, for instance, while breakfasts are admittedly rather light, lunch times are long and taken seriously. Whether in Montréal or Paris you will find many restaurants closed for a couple hours in the afternoon to provide a long lunch break to the staff. School aged children in France enjoy hearty meals with time to chew, savor, digest and participate in social exchange; the French Ministry of Education insists that kids take a minimum of 30 minutes for eating their lunch. In various parts of the world, adults and children alike return home for real food and a rest at midday. Food is to be savored. Not very effective from a productivity view point perhaps, but arguably healthier.
If we are to become a healthier nation we must relearn how to prioritize slow, real food. And if you struggle with mood balance including feelings of chronic stress, anxiety or depression, you absolutely must consider carefully what and how you eat.
Direction is so much more important than speed. Many are going nowhere fast.
If you are ready to change direction in terms of your approach to nutrition, particularly for those of you who want to eat for better mood balance, I offer the following considerations to help get you started. These tips will help you begin to lower inflammation, balance blood sugar, and boost your gut health.
- Eat regularly. Do not skip meals. If, like me, you don’t like eating early, have your breakfast a little later but within 2 hours of waking (send healthy snacks to school with teens to eat mid-morning if they are not breakfast eaters). Rather than grazing, establish some meal times (3 meals and 1-2 snacks) and sit down to eat. Take a few deep breaths before eating. Also, think outside the North American Breakfast Box (ex. elk stew is a delicious breakfast), pack your lunches and stock some healthy snacks in your vehicle or keep a basket in your fridge of grab and go foods prepared in advance (veggies and homemade hummus, trail mix, chia pudding with berries in a jar).
- Go through your kitchen and do a ruthless purge. Stop eating genetically modified foods sprayed with glyphosate which destroys gut bacteria, chelates minerals and damages mitochondria. Get rid of all the refined sugar and snacks, vegetable oils, margarine, fat-free packaged products, crackers, artificial sweeteners, conventional dairy, pop, pastries and store-bought muffins. If this is too hard-core for you then begin by making some simpler nutritional upgrades to some of the foods your regularly consume.
- Begin eating a colorful assortment of fruit and vegetables. Choose deeply hued varieties and aim for 4-5 cups of non-starchy veggies each and every day. Add some to an omelet in the morning; eat a big, hearty salad for lunch to get in plenty of mood-boosting leafy greens and enzyme rich sprouts; eat half your dinner plate in cruciferous vegetables in the evening; use fresh or non-irradiated dried herbs in your stews and stir-fries. Add berries on top of your homemade granola or in an afternoon pick-me-up smoothie. If you tolerate fruit well (not all of us feel calm and balanced eating fruit), grab a piece of fruit mid-morning and smear it with cashew butter when you are having that sugar craving. And I encourage you to add some fermented veggies to your diet (kimchi, sauerkraut, lacto-fermented veggies).
- Eat fat. Fat is brain food, people. Not the rancid kind your French fries are cooked in. Not only is good quality fat great for your joints, skin, hair, supports healthy bowel movements, boosts cognitive function, and so on, but it increases your feelings of satiety – your sense of fullness and satisfaction with a meal. When you eat sufficient, quality fats you are far less likely to crave sugar or caffeine – your moods are more stabilized – and I honestly think you feel more joyful. A piece of 70% organic dark chocolate, avocado, olives, coconut flakes, organic butter or ghee melted on top of your veggies (which may increase absorption of fat soluble vitamins), avocado, olive, coconut oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds, nut butters, fish, whole eggs… are all fabulous sources of fats to add to your days. Eat some fat with each meal (and each snack if you can) to help boost your moods.
- Eat more protein. This can be hard – not impossible – with a vegan or vegetarian diet. You have to be all the more vigilant if you are a non meat-eater to ensure you are obtaining sufficient, quality protein (and thereby all the essential amino acids) from your diet. Soy burgers and energy bars are not quality protein. Two years ago I moved from a pescatarian diet to including meat in my diet for the sake of my physical and mental health; this greatly improved my mood balance. I have also heard the stories of many others in the holistic health realm who had to add in some animal products, even for a time, in order to balance moods. Meat eater or not, choose quality. Ideally you will eat protein with each of your main meals in the amount of 3-4 oz or 20-30 grams (an approximate visual guide could be the size of the palm of your hand). Some ideas to consider include bone broth, organ meats, eggs, fish, wild meat, poultry, legumes, nuts and seeds including hemp and chia, quality whey or other protein powders (be very careful about choosing quality), spirulina, bee pollen and fermented dairy. I am not a huge fan of soy but if you eat some, ensure it is organic or at least non-GMO (firm tofu, edamame) and choose more fermented versions (miso, tempeh).
- Consume Omega 3’s. Yes, I know I have already discussed fats and protein but Omega 3’s and fish deserve their own special category. 10 years ago, after my third child was born I had to start eating fish because of intense brain fog and other issues (low levels of omega 3’s postpartum appear to be associated with depressive symptoms). I recommend fish at least 2x/week and you may want more at first if your diet has been low in Omega 3’s; see this guide to help you choose lower mercury options but only eat wild (not farmed) fish whether on the safe list or not. If you do not consume animal products you can choose to lower omega 6 consumption to improve your Omega 3-6 balance and to your whole food diet add plenty of flax, chia and hemp along with an algae supplement. If you have mood disorder you may want to test your fatty acid profile to help you eat and supplement accordingly.
- Indulge in treats. Yup, you heard me. Too much restriction leads to rebellion and sucks the joy out of life and I believe that food is one of the greatest pleasures of this world. But what I am proposing is very purposeful eating and planning for treats as opposed to bingeing or caving in after a period of deprivation. I eat a bit of dark chocolate most days. I buy yummy teas in pretty boxes (for some reason the box matters), I make treats here and there for my family: coconut flour brownies, vegan cheesecake bites, apple-blackberry crisp. I choose quality ingredients, of course. To help my youngest balance her health needs with her desire for some junk foody treats, we purposed years ago that each Friday night she could choose one or two items from the little stash she acquires here and there. The trick here, again, is to be purposeful. Do you want to have a small piece of chocolate each day or a Friday night family treat? Do you want to keep all food at home super clean because of your bingeing tendencies but allow yourself to eat dessert (or chicken wings) when at a restaurant (providing you don’t eat out three times a week) or at family events? Put some thought into what might help you feel really nourished and then enjoy these treats with no shame or guilt attached (shame fuels anxiety).
If you struggle with mood balance or anxiety, the best approach is to work with someone who can guide you to a more individualized nutrition plan for your specific situation and eating philosophy (ex. vegan, paleo, your allergies, etc.). You may need testing for allergies or nutrient deficiencies, you may need to discuss perfectionism around food or self-medicating with coffee, sugar or alcohol. You may need deeper support targeting low thyroid or mitochondrial function. But these steps will get you off on the right foot. Some of you may feel you have already got these steps mastered. But many of you do need to begin at ground zero and I applaud you for making the effort. Changing what and how you eat can feel very hard at first and you may meet with a lot of resistance at home.
But be strong and courageous because your health and wellness are worth the effort,
P.S. This is the third post in a series. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 4 here. And check out my friend, Renée’s, post on practical solutions for managing her anxiety. Next week I will post about supplements to support you in your struggle with anxiety.