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Eat the rainbow for better mental health

Every week it seems like there’s a new diet we should all be following. I first became aware of this a few years ago with the explosion of the Atkins diet. Now there’s so many diets to choose from – the Cambridge, paleo, 5:2, cabbage soup, grapefruit, the master cleanse – it’s hard to know where to start and what foods we should and shouldn’t be eating.

A healthy, balanced diet is essential to good physical and mental health. We are all different when it comes to what we like and don’t like to eat, intolerances, allergies and budgets, so one strict diet won’t be suitable for everyone. However, increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables we eat is good for all of us and can help us feel and function better.

How many fruit and vegetables do you eat each day?

In the UK, it’s recommended that we eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day. In Australia, it’s 7 portions (5 vegetables and 2 fruit), whereas in the United States, the recommended amount is 2 servings of fruit and 3 of vegetables.

Whatever, the recommended daily intake, we appear to be struggling to meet it:

With all these facts and figures in mind, this week’s post and activity focuses on a simple way to get more fruit and vegetables into our diets – by making our meals as colourful as possible. The more colours we eat, the greater the potential benefits to our health and wellbeing.

The mental benefits of fruit and vegetables

We now have access to a whole range of fruit and vegetables that spans the colours of the rainbow. Each colour group contains vitamins, fibre and nutrients that contribute to good physical and mental health regardless of whether they are fresh, canned, frozen, juiced or dried. Here are three good reasons to get more of these foods into our diets:

  1. Increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables can increase our psychological wellbeing. Two large scale studies from the UK and Australia found that people who ate more fruit and vegetables were more likely to report feeling happy, improved wellbeing and feeling satisfied with life.
  2. If we eat 2 extra portions of fruit or vegetables a day, our motivation may increase. By increasing our intake of fruit and vegetables just a little, we can have more energy and motivation to take on the day.
  3. Our mood can improve. Increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables we eat can reduce the likelihood of experiencing anxiety and depression. This may have something to do with the amount of vitamin C in fruit and vegetables. Those of us who consume lots of vitamin C every day are less stressed in the face of psychological challenges.

A rainbow of opportunities

We’re now aware of the benefits eating more fruit and vegetables can have for our wellbeing, but how can we get more of them into our diet? After all, the textures and flavours of these foods don’t taste good to all of us.

This week’s task aims to increase our fruit and vegetable intake in a simple way – by eating meals with at least 3 colours in them. Eating rainbow meals (as I like to call them) is an easy way to remember to put more fruit and vegetables into your diet. The table below shows the different coloured fruit and vegetables so you can figure out which ones you like of each colour and start introducing more of them into your meals.

Here’s some suggestions to get you started:

  • Breakfast – porridge with bananas, raspberries and raisins
  • Lunch – baked sweet potato with spinach, tomatoes and sweetcorn
  • Dinner – chilli con carne with red peppers, kale and kidney beans

The rainbow of fruit and vegetables and questions to help you plan your meals are available on the worksheet below. Click the link to download the worksheet. You can fill it in using the ‘fill and sign’ tool or alternatively print it off and fill it in by hand.

If you’d like to share how you got on with this activity, or the impact birthdays have on your wellbeing, please do get in touch 15minutewellbeing@gmail.com

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How your diet could be affecting your stress levels

Do you devour a pack of chocolate buttons when you’ve had a bad day? Do you pour yourself a glass (or two, or three) of wine when it all feels a bit much? Does smoking a cigarette take the edge off your nerves? If you answered yes to any of the above, then you may be using food and drink (and even other substances) to help you cope with stress and negative feelings you experience.

Last week, we covered a short-term way to deal with stress – bagging up our worries and throwing them away (how did you find that activity? Do let me know!) In this second post during National Stress Awareness Month, we will be focusing on a longer-term approach to cope with stress: what we eat and drink.

How food and drink can affect how we feel

Everything we consume has an effect on how our bodies function. However, some food, drinks and other substances can affect our mental functioning and wellbeing because they produce a psychoactive effect. That is, some of what we consume can contribute to us feeling happy, sad, calm and anxious.

How does this work? Key to the relationship between what we eat, drink, take and our wellbeing are different chemicals in our bodies:

  1. Serotonin – this controls how happy we feel
  2. Dopamine – our reward system, this contributes to us feeling good about ourselves
  3. Noradrenaline – influences how alert, anxious or calm we are

Different food, alcohol and drugs can affect these chemicals, leading to changes in our mood and wellbeing. Today’s post and activity will explore how what we consume can affect our levels of stress and wellbeing. We will also look at how making small changes to our diets can have a long-lasting impact on our mental health.

Why we use food and drink to cope with stress

Many of us eat, drink, smoke or take drugs to help us cope with stressful situations and negative feelings. There are many reasons for this, but over 90% of our serotonin receptors (the chemical that makes us feel happy) are in our guts. This may be why we associate feeling happy with eating and resort to food and drink when we feel stressed or unhappy.

Over 40% of us overeat or eat junk food and nearly 60% of us drink alcohol to cope with everyday stress. Although these and other substances can provide some temporary relief from stress, they are not a long-term solution:

What can I eat or drink to help me feel less stressed?

Cutting down on sugar and junk food can increase our resilience. Limiting our alcohol intake can have a positive impact on our wellbeing and reduce the paranoia (and consequent stress) experienced after a big drinking session. Only consuming caffeine in the morning or in smaller doses can reduce anxiety and improve sleep.

One thing we can increase in our diets is protein. The amino acids found in protein are used by our brains to protect against low mood and feeling angry. Foods high in protein include fish, meat, beans, lentils and nuts.

This week’s activity requires you to look at your diet and see if you can make any changes to it to reduce your stress levels and improve your wellbeing. The worksheet provides further information on protein, caffeine and alcohol, along with some questions to help you explore whether you can improve your diet and your wellbeing.

Click the link below to download the worksheet. You can fill it in using the ‘fill and sign’ tool or alternatively print it off and fill it in by hand.

If changing your diet has reduced stress and helped improve your wellbeing, please do get in contact and share your story!

I share wellbeing-related research, news and stories on twitter and Instagram inbetween weekly blog posts so do follow @15minwellbeing on both platforms to keep up to date.