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Food for the mind: Boosting your mental wellbeing

This blog was written by Andie Murphy, a Health Promotion Practitioner at Peninsula Health.

October is World Mental Health month, which led me to think about the effects COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions were having on my own and my families physical and mental wellbeing. So I decided to look deeper at the link between the food we eat and its effects on our mental wellbeing. I commenced by observing what foods I was eating when I was feeling stressed and anxious.

My observations, that you too may be able to relate to, were:

  • Feeling ‘hangry’ – (hunger and angry at the same time) when a meal is skipped or meal time is late
  • Feeling a sense of brain fog or decrease in energy, particularly in the afternoon
  • Starting to crave and reach out for those higher in sugar foods
  • Allowing emotions to influence meal choices
  • Uncertainty around whether you are hungry or thirsty.

On reflection, this helped me to understand the impact that food was having on my day-to-day mood changes and mental wellbeing, and vice versa.  

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating

The guidelines include five core recommendations which aim to direct people to the types and amounts of foods they should consume for a healthy, balanced diet: https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/guidelines/about-australian-dietary-guidelines

  • plenty of vegetables, including different types and colours, and legumes/beans
  • fruit
  • grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties, such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley
  • lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans
    • increased consumption of fish
    • low consumption of red and processed meat
  • milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat (reduced fat milks are not suitable for children under the age of 2 years).
    • moderate consumption of dairy.

The guidelines also recommend to drink plenty of water and enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods.

The overall goal is to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, be physically active, and choose amounts of nutritious food and drinks to meet your energy needs.

Professor Felice Jacka of Deakin University and International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research says, “A very large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health.”

Understanding that the food we eat does have an impact on our physical and mental health and wellbeing I developed a resource which aims to assist our local community to obtain accurate information about food that supports good mental health. You can access it via this link: https://www.peninsulahealth.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Food-for-Mental-Wellbeing-Resource.pdf

What’s in the pantry and fridge?

Throughout my research in developing the Food for Mental Wellbeing resource, I learnt so much including ways to take better care for myself and my family. Here are some tips and tricks that I implement in my own life, which you may also find helpful, as well as some food suggestions to include in your pantry, fridge and plant based food items.

When making changes in our lives, it is a great opportunity to take a step back and look at what is around us. It is the exact same process for our kitchens, we want this to be as  simple and affordable as it can be, and the bonus; the results will be so much more enjoyable.

Easy prepping ideas

Oats are great for a quick, affordable and simple breakfast that will support and give us a great start to the day. As an example, here at home we make up an “oat jar” the night before by adding milk (any milk or milk alternative works well), berries, chia seeds, peanut butter etc., pop the lid on, shake it and place it in the fridge for an easy grab in the morning.

When I cook dinner I always prepare enough for lunch the next day. This can be easily achieved by using fresh produce such as lean cut meat, chicken, fish, tofu, fresh vegetables of your choice, legumes if desired  and herbs for an awesome flavour. You can also take food preparation a step further by planning a day in the kitchen (get the entire family involved) for a “cook up” of multiple recipes that can then be frozen for those easy to grab foods when in a hurry.

Linking food to mental health

It is known that the quality of what people eat within their diet is linked to health problems. 

Making the link between your food and mental wellbeing doesn’t have to involve expensive or complex changes – it can be a sustainable modification made by changing our thoughts and language to “I am going to eat the right foods for my body and mind”. Focusing on the quality of what we actually eat within our daily diet as opposed to focusing on our body weight will support us mentally as well as physically.

An interesting connection in the link between diet and mental health is our gut. The gut and the brain talk to each other all the time – this is why you may observe a sore stomach when you are stressed, worried or even upset. The bacteria that live in our guts is possibly very important in our mental health, as well as affecting our metabolism, our immune system, and many other activities and systems in our body.

Useful links

Recipe Videos

Useful recipe websites

More information

Food and Mood Food Diary: https://ugc.futurelearn.com/uploads/files/e2/30/e23022fb-4b23-4483-8bd7-645f59c27074/Food_diary.pdf

Food for Mental Wellbeing resource: https://www.peninsulahealth.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Food-for-Mental-Wellbeing-Resource.pdf

Disclaimer: it is recommended that you consult with a medical professional/ dietician before making any major changes to your diet. Information and contact details regarding Peninsula Health’s Nutrition and Dietetics services can be found via this link: https://www.peninsulahealth.org.au/services/services-a-e/allied-health/nutrition-and-dietetics/

If you are interested in creating healthy environments, would like to partner with us, or have a question, please contact us at: healthpromotion@phcn.vic.gov.au