There is no doubt 2020 was a challenging year! After months of stress, significant life changes, and self-isolation, most of us are feeling unbalanced in many ways, such as our diet. It’s easy to adopt unhealthy eating habits when we are stressed, short on money, and not able to leave the house consistently. Plus we just had a holiday that is typically focused on big meals and lots of tasty treats. So, let’s talk about our diet and how it impacts our mental health.
We know the way we eat not only influences the way we feel physically, but also mentally. More specifically, our diet affects the production and transmission of serotonin and dopamine in our brain. These are commonly known as “happiness neurotransmitters” which have a significant impact on our mood. Our eating habits also influence cortisol levels in our brain, which is the stress hormone.
There is so much information out there about diet that it can be challenging to know where to start when it comes to eating healthy. If you made eating habits one of your new year’s resolutions, here are some strategies to help you begin.
How to Make Changes Related to Diet
1 Define your goal.
Target one specific behaviour you would like to change at a time. A smaller and more realistic goal is often better as it will be easier to reach. This will leave you with a sense of achievement and more motivation to continue.
Your goal should also be in line with your vision of the future. Try to find the reason why you want to make that change. Is it to have more energy? To be healthier? More attractive? More productive? When you feel like giving in to a craving, connecting with that deeper motivation will help you stay strong and make healthier choices.
Here are 6 steps to effective goal setting from Dr. Joti Samra.
2 Limit your sugar intake.
Sugar overconsumption has not only been shown to be one of the main contributors to weight gain, but it also has an impact on brain functioning. Research has linked sugar overconsumption to cognitive impairment, anxiety and depression. Academics have also shown that sugar is “tricking your brain” as it is increasing the impulsivity to feed. This means the more sugar you eat, the more you want to eat overall!
3 Find strategies to manage your stress.
Emotional eating is very common. After eating high-fat or high-sugar food, the brain releases hormones that reduce the feelings of stress, which makes you want to have more. The “reward pathway” involved in your brain is similar to the one involved in addiction to drugs or alcohol. Find alternative ways to manage your stress. This will allow you to obtain a similar calming result, without the extra calories!
Read more about some of these examples at the links above.
4 Improve your sleep quality.
Research has shown sleep deprivation decreases the activity in the region of your brain responsible for assessing hunger, as well as in the region that controls cravings. Therefore, sleep loss boosts your appetite and drives you toward high-calorie food. As a result, a regular sleep schedule can help you regulate your sleep and therefore help you with your diet. Some other sleep strategies include avoiding screen time before bed and having a consistent bedtime routine.
Need more support with getting your sleep habits back on track? Check out our sleep resources on our website.
5 Seek professional help if you are feeling depressed or if you have experienced trauma.
Research shows that the relationship between mental health and diet is bidirectional. This means the way you eat affects how you’re feeling as much as your mental state affects your eating habits. For example, depression can increase or decrease your appetite, lower your motivation to cook or move and be associated with more cravings. As for trauma, it can lead to a state of “hypervigilance” or to a sense of “numbness”, both affecting hunger signals, which in turn can lead to poor eating habits. If you’re experiencing mental health challenges, it can be helpful to have the guidance of a mental health worker to approach the changes you want to make from a more global perspective.
6 Try mindfulness eating.
Mindfulness eating is an excellent way to slow down, fully engage in the experience of eating and to become more aware of your biological cues of hunger and satiety. You can find more information about mindfulness eating here.
Final Thoughts on Diet and Mental Health
A lot of us are struggling as a result of the stresses we’ve experienced over the last year. So, it’s important to remember to be gentle with ourselves and our bodies as we move into the new year. Yes, our diet is connected to our mental health and wellness, so we can set good intentions about eating healthy and moving our bodies in a way that feels good without focusing on weight loss.
Vanessa Rouzier (she/her/hers) is a Registered Clinical Counsellor with Dr. Joti Samra, R. Psych. & Associates. She truly believes in the unicity and potential of each client, working with their own visions, goals and strengths to help them make the desired changes. Vanessa supports individuals and couples struggling with anxiety, depression, trauma, life transition, stress, self-esteem, eating habits, sleep problems, ADHD, emotion management, relationships, social skills, communication and parenting issues. Check out her full bio here, and reach out through our Contact Page or our Clinical Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org, for more information or to book an appointment.
One third of working adults struggle with chronic sleep difficulties. Here are 5 tips to sleep better without medication.
Most people who are dealing with chronic stressors experience some impact on how they feel physically. Here are 4 ways to manage your symptoms.