What Should I Eat for My Mental Health?
Learning to eat in a way that promotes mental health wellness without feeding anxiety, depression and dysfunctional thoughts can be a challenge. Often, our knee-jerk reaction is to create a strict, rigid plan with all the rules. However, it is this very rigidity that can lead to an increased sense of anxiety related to the desire for perfection and an increased risk for depression secondary to chronic failure. Research with over 20,000 individuals demonstrated that rigid diets, though sometimes successful in the short-term, often result in poor long-term outcomes. This means that weight lost may be regained, improved health markers may be reversed and mental health status may plummet within the first year if rigid and overly-restrictive diets are chosen. The truth is, the best meal plan to promote mental health wellness alongside improved physical health is one that strategically implements imperfection, flexibility and variety.
Let’s start with the philosophy of the meal plan vision. We need to be ready for the unexpected. It is important to build relapse prevention strategies right into your meal plan just like we would with mental health treatment plans. What I mean by this is, prepare for how you will respond when things inevitably don’t go as planned. Because at some point, this is going to happen and there is no need to go right back to maladaptive eating patterns the first time something goes wrong. The goal is to develop a lens through which we can see several paths to successful eating rather than just one rigid path set up like an intangible maze. This can be done with exposure therapy, which is accomplished by practicing situations that may have historically thrown you off. For example, you can choose to eat at a common restaurant to practice something outside your traditional meal plan.
Next, let’s talk about the structure of the meal plan. The pattern is where its at. It is incredibly important from both a psychological and physical health standpoint that there is a consistent, familiar pattern of eating. Psychologically, this provides an ongoing sense of completion, accomplishment and security. It empowers an individual to take control over something that has probably felt out of control in the past. Physically, it helps to establish a timeclock that regulates hunger and fullness cues as well as digestion, giving an individual a natural sense of permission to eat consistently and intuition to stop eating when full. Ideally, meal plans are set up with three meals and three snacks daily, with even time durations between each eating episode. So for example, a great pattern would be alternating meals and snacks at 7:00 am, 9:30 am, 12:00 pm, 2:30 pm, 5:00 pm and 7:30 pm. This helps to promote a consistent feeling of satiety or contentment and helps an individual to avoid periods of excessive restriction followed by overeating. Having said this, keep in mind that this is just a guideline and should not be seen as a rigid rule. There will be times that it makes more sense to eat earlier, later or less times in a day. No crisis will occur if this happens from time to time. As reinforced by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), reflecting on habitual eating patterns, replacing unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones and positive reinforcement of a healthy lifestyle all contribute to an increased potential for long-term wellness.
Another fundamental component of the meal plan structure is food volume. One of the biggest triggers that my clients report is related to cycling between restrictive eating and overindulgence, which makes hunger and fullness cues a hot mess. It is essential that when a meal plan is established, it is done so with the appropriate total caloric needs as the foundation. Weight loss, weight gain and weight maintenance are all driven by how our calories taken in compare to calories burned each day. One of the most frustrating situations for an individual is when they believe that they are choosing healthy foods, but because their daily caloric content is excessive or inadequate, their weight is not responding the way that they imagined it would. This can be so confusing, and quite frankly devastating, for someone who is invested in making lifestyles changes. In combination with an appropriate eating pattern, a consistent caloric structure is key. If daily caloric needs are determined to be 2000 kcal per day, a great structure would be using a range of 400 to 450 kcal for meals and 200 to 250 kcal for snacks. Using a range helps to redirect the unrealistic desire for perfection, while establishing familiar food volumes for the stomach to become accustomed to. There is no such thing as perfect eating, but familiarity will go a long ways. A great starting point in establishing appropriate food volumes and caloric content is finding a prepackaged meal service that is aimed at providing balanced whole food meals and empowers you with nutritional content information (Clean Eatz Kitchen - Healthy Meals Delivered). This serves as a teaching tool for visualizing appropriate food volumes, provides a variety of meal combination ideas, guides you in choosing appropriate caloric content and is an excellent piece of the relapse prevention plan when individuals don’t have time to cook or prepare foods.
The final piece of meal planning is the actual foods eaten. First and foremost, there should be no forbidden foods. Foods categorized into “good” and “bad” categories will cause more harm than good as related to mental health. It sets an individual up for feelings of guilt and shame, which can bleed into mental health status as highlighted by the JED Foundation. All foods can fit in moderation. Learning how they contribute to overall daily needs is a great way to approach the situation. For example, let’s say chocolate candy purchased in bulk turns into an overindulgence. The response doesn’t have to be avoiding chocolate candy all together. It could be choosing a single-serve trail mix or bar that has some combination of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and chocolate candy (Clean Eatz Kitchen Protein Bars). This reframes your perception of this potentially-triggering food item as a small component of a healthy snack. Next, no food group should be avoided, as doing so would eliminate a set of nutrients essential to overall health. When planning meals and snacks, it is important to focus on balanced intake. There are a variety of free resources available to learn more about daily nutritional needs for each food group, as well as portion guidelines for individual needs (MyPlate | U.S. Department of Agriculture). A less familiar piece of a healthy daily meal plan linked directly to mental health status is gut health strategies. Incorporating yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and even dark chocolate can add healthy bacteria to your gut to promote both physical and mental health wellness.
Overall, developing a vision for a long-term lifestyle change should be the overarching goal. Quick fixes rarely give lifelong results and can often lead to increased physical and mental health issues. Give yourself some grace as you develop a meal plan that is flexible, balanced and adaptable to your lifestyle. Rome wasn’t built in a day.