Inside: If you want to eat for better mood balance, this post offer tips to help you begin to lower inflammation, balance blood sugar, and boost your gut health. It includes a free PDF on Mental Health, Inflammation, and Nutrition for Better Moods.
NOTE: I struggled with disordered eating for a long time and I observe my rigidity in many of my older posts on nutrition (many I’ve deleted, some like this one I’ve chosen to edit a bit and keep. I’ve struggled with my mental health and two of my children have as well. I wanted to control the food in our home to love my family well but also out of fear. Food is not a moral issue. Nutrition is one thread of a healthy life. Take care of yourself first and foremost, whatever that looks, sounds, feels like. And if you have the capacity, take a look at your nutrition habits to support your mood balance.
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.
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 although it’s also very possible that underreporting is an issue) 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 sugary coffee on the run. Then go searching for a caffeine-sugar fix an hour and a half later when they experience a blood sugar crash.
nutrition plays an important role in our mental and physical health
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 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 and the slower eaters return home ravenous because they don’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 or experience and are afraid to feed themselves. And in some cases a focus on healthy eating turns into disordered eating or orthorexia.
WE CAN GLEAN USEFUL IDEAS FROM OTHER CULTURES AND THEIR APPROACH TO FOOD AND MEALTIMES
Many other countries around the world still embrace the need to slow down and pause for life-giving nourishment. Mealtime 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 energy and focus.
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 viewpoint perhaps, but arguably healthier.
If we are to become a healthier nation we must relearn how to prioritize slow, real food (and make whole food more accessible in some cases). And if you struggle with mood balance including feelings of chronic stress, anxiety or depression, which is when we typically have less capacity, you need to consider the impact of what and how you eat.
If you are ready to make some changes, or feel curious about eating 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.
Get a PDF on Mental Health, Inflammation, and Nutrition for Better Moods below.
7 tips for better mood balance
1. Eat regularly. Do not skip meals.
There is no one size fits all eating pattern that works best for everyone. This may take experimentation and can depend on hormonal balance, season of life, any health conditions, etc. But here is one thought: 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 (set a timer if you need a reminder to break from work) 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).
2. do some kitchen decluttering and restocking.
Eat fewer packaged foods, or those high in refined sugar, vegetable oils, and artificial sweeteners. When shifting our habits it can be helpful to figure out if you’re an abstainer or a moderator. That is, do you do best keeping some treats at home or do you do best clearing them out of your home and enjoying them once in a while outside the home. Whatever you choose, stay out of shame and judgement around eating, or a focus on “good” and “bad” (food is not a moral issue) because this tends to get us stuck in a loop of self-soothing vs making more conscious choice.
Focus on the foods you eat most and try out some simple nutritional upgrades. Or use the Dirty Dozen list to get you started. Stock your pantry and freezer with staples that make it easier on yourself to pull together simple meals. Make a simple menu plan and rotate through family favourites.
3. 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).
Side note: I’m allergic to all stone fruit so if you don’t feel well eating fruit you might want to consider seeing an allergist.
4. 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.
5. 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.
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 where you’re able. Eat protein with 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 react to processed soy but can eat organic tofu and edamame and fermented versions (miso, tempeh). The point is to listen to your body and what works for you.
6. Consume Omega 3’s.
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 a mood disorder you may want to test your fatty acid profile to help you eat and supplement accordingly.
7. savour treats.
Restriction can lead to rebellion and suck the joy out of life and I believe that food is one of the greatest pleasures of this world. Purposeful eating that includes treats is a healthier way of approaching food. I’ll repeat here that food is not a moral issue. Neither is alcohol or caffeine or sugar. What we eat impacts our mind-body health, but living with self-compassion and joy have an even bigger impact.
If you struggle with mood balance or anxiety, you might want 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 support to work through shame and perfectionism around food, self-medicating, or disordered eating.
You may want to take a cooking class or invest in some new tools and cookbooks to make food feel fun again.
Take things slow and steady, experiment in the kitchen, and remember that food isn’t an after thought but an important (and joyful) part of being human.
P.S. This is the third post in a series from 2016. 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.