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How your diet can help support your mental health

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Eggs happy

As working from home becomes the new normal in many households across Australia, the importance of achieving balance when it comes to both physical and mental health is timelier than ever. Nutritionist and gut expert, Chloe McLeod, has shared her insights into how diet can not only help support a healthy immune system, but help reduce stress and positively impact on mental health.

Chloe McLeod

Can diet (poor or good) impact on stress levels?

Good diet can help manage stress levels. We know having a healthy gut is linked with better mood and stress management, so choosing foods which help with growth of healthy bacteria will assist with this, and how the body feels day to day. This means including plenty of fibre rich foods, and foods rich in antioxidants and polyphenols.

If your body isn’t feeling as healthy as it should, it may be more difficult to manage stress. Research has shown that low fibre, high fat diets can change your gut bacteria in as little as a few days!

If your diet is deficient in certain nutrients, such as choline or vitamin D you may notice worse stress levels. Both choline and vitamin D as both have been linked with better stress management and can be found in everyday household food items like eggs.

Can diet choices help reduce stress?

Diet can impact stress in a couple of ways:

Inclusion of carbohydrate rich foods. These are involved in serotonin production, the hormone that helps us feel happy. This is one of the reasons ‘comfort food’ is often carb heavy.

Ensuring adequate intake of the nutrients the body needs can help reduce stress. Firstly, by optimising performance through nutrient availability, creating an environment of less stress on the body by simply eating enough of the right foods each day can help with managing day to day stress. Secondly, by timing intake of food around stressors to help reduce impact of stress. For example, eating eggs and toast after a big training session provides protein, carbs and a number of micronutrients involved in better recovery.

Inclusion of foods which feed the microbiome. This means including fibre rich foods which provide food for the healthy bacteria in the gut. A healthy microbiome leads to less stress, due to the link between our gut and brain.

What are the best diet choices to help reduce stress?

Include plenty of fibre rich foods, such as wholegrains and legumes. Ensure your plate is filled with a rainbow of colours to optimal nutrition. My favourite humble superfood are eggs, due to their fantastic nutrition profile for stress management – vitamin D, choline, protein and other B vitamins all have an important role to play. Happily, these foods work so well together. Think an omelette with avo, veggies and toast, or zucchini and rice slice, or even a chickpea salad with boiled eggs.

When young adults start managing their own diets for the first time (because they’ve left home or are now working full time) what are some tips they should consider?

Health impact of food choices – yes can be tempting to live on take away, however this won’t leave you feeling your best self for long. Better food choices result in better health, which means improved quality of life for the long term.

Budget – For most when they move out of home, budget is something to consider. Choosing good quality food that doesn’t break the bank is important. Making use of eggs, be it as an omelette, scrambled eggs or something else, is a wallet friendly option for getting in enough good quality protein.

Learn to cook. Having 2-3 go to, easy meals you can cook on a weeknight, along with 1 meal that requires a little more effort is a great start from both a week to week basis, and if you are wanting to cook for someone in your new abode.

Can you tell us what role eggs play in a stress reducing diet?

Eggs are a great source of good quality protein which help with managing satiety levels.  Eggs also contain choline, a nutrient that's needed to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that impacts the portions of the brain responsible for regulating mood and reducing stress. Plus - eggs are a great source of vitamin D, and it’s been shown that adequate vitamin D levels have been linked with reduced risk of depression.

Can you please give one (mood/health) benefit for each of the following vitamins/nutrients that are found in eggs?

Vitamin B – helps body manage stress more effectively. Vitamins B1,2,3,6 and 12 all help the nervous system function more effectively, which in turn help with stress management.

Vitamin D – adequate levels shown to reduce risk of depression

Choline – a nutrient that's needed to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that impacts the portions of the brain responsible for regulating mood and reducing stress.

Tryptophan – helps with sleep. It is involved in the making of melatonin, which is the hormone which helps influences your sleep/wake cycle.

What are your top 5 tips for people wanting to create healthy diets their busy schedule?
  1. Be organised. Planning ahead, stocking your pantry and freezer with healthy options, and knowing what you will eat when makes it much simpler as it means less decision making on the fly, and ensures the healthy choice is the easy choice.
  2. Meal prep. Similar to being organised, prepping your meals 1-2 times per week means less time spent cooking, resulting in more time for other activities, be it work or play.
  3. Hydrate. Keep a bottle of water with you to sip on across the day, refilling as needed. This helps prevent unnecessary snacking (as common side effect of dehydration), and also helps improve concentration.
  4. Include a nutritious, balanced lunch. 3pm is the common time people head to the chocolate jar, however this doesn’t need to be you. Choose a meal that is balanced with good quality protein, low GI carbs and loads of veggies to help you feel satisfied but not heavy and avoid reaching for that 3pm chocolate.
  5. Use online shopping. Getting to the shops, shopping, and getting home from the shops can be time consuming. Create a couple of lists in your preferred online store for your weekly essentials and have them delivered each week.