MAKE A DIFFERENCE | workplace culture / mental health / wellbeing

COVID-19 One Year On: 5 Key Nutrition Tips for Optimal Mental Health in 2021

Spring is here, we’re seeing more sunshine and the days are finally getting longer. There’s a sense of hope in the air again as we’re also seeing widespread vaccinations and plans are in place to start lifting the winter’s strict restrictions.

But as we’ve just celebrated our second Easter living in the global health pandemic, it’s also a time of reflection of all that’s different now from what we knew before; how we’re different from who we were before.

It’s a time of being mindful of physical healthour own and that of our loved onesand all we’ve endured collectively since March 2020. 

But it’s also been a serious time of reflection about our mental health. We’ve been put to the test as citizens, as parents, as employees and the rates of mental ill health are at crisis levels, according to the UN. The health crisis is exposing the undeniable importance of looking after our mental wellbeing across our workplaces, at home and in our communities.

And people have really started waking up to how our lifestyle choices directly impact on our overall health.

Physical Health & Nutrition

A positive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that people have started to prioritize eating healthier to improve immune systems.

Research from FMCG Gurus found that 59 percent of people globally have become more conscious about their overall health and 57 percent about their immunity since the start of the health pandemic. As a result, 73 percent of consumers said they’re committed to eating and drinking healthier.

Mental Health and Nutrition

While the physical health benefits of eating well are commonly understood, most people don’t make the connection between mental health and the impact the food we choose to eat can have on our mental health.

Anxiety and depression are amongst the most common mental health conditions worldwide. And depression could be one of the top health concerns in the world by 2030, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

A review of 21 studies from 10 countries found that a healthy diet—which includes high consumption of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, fish, low fat dairy, and antioxidants, as well as low intakes of animal foods (commonly known as the Mediterranean diet)—was associated with a reduced risk of depression.

Meanwhile, a Western-style diet—involving a high intake of red and processed meats, refined grains, sweets, high fat dairy products, butter, and potatoes, as well as a low intake of fruit and vegetables—was linked with a significantly increased risk of depression in the studies.

The Bottom Line

Prior to March 2020, the negative impact of our food choices used to be easier to turn a blind eye to.

But in the past 12 months, we´ve seen that these choices can actually be a matter of life or death as we´ve learned that people with chronic disease have been more susceptible to contracting and experiencing the most severe effects of Coronavirus.

And research also shows us that we are less likely to be mentally resilient to the stresses and uncertainties of our current times if we’re not looking after what we eat.

While the global health crisis has shone a bright light on the things we cannot control in our current world, in our day to day lives, it’s also made it clear what things we can have some control towards: namely our physical and mental fitness.

It’s fair to say if we’re not feeling mentally fit, we’re unlikely to prioritize our physical wellbeing and thus there’s a two-fold argument for eating for our mental health in 2021:

  • To maintain our immunity toward the virus and our mental fitness
  • To look after ourselves and our loved ones through these continued trying times.

And here’s how you can get started.     

Five Key Nutrition Tips for Optimal Mental Health in 2021

1. Moderate caffeine and chocolate consumption.

Caffeine and chocolate can trick the brain into releasing neurotransmitters that we may be lacking, thereby creating a temporary alteration in mood. This can in other ways create more highs and lows in our moods versus a balanced mood. So it’s best to stick to one cup of coffee a day and limit chocolate consumption to dark chocolate (above 70%) and be mindful of the time of day for your chocolate fix.

2. Reduce sugar intake, eating healthy carbohydrates & eating small portions regularly.

Eating refined sugars (found in processed food & sweetened drinks and used in cooking, [white and brown sugars]) and carbs (carbs are digested as sugars) is something to pay attention to. This is because when your blood glucose (e.g. sugar) rises and falls rapidly (due to sugar intake), it can have an impact on mood, causing irritability, and can trigger symptoms of anxiety.

Keeping your blood glucose levels steady and aiming to eat smaller portions of slow energy (sugar) release foods, spaced out throughout the day, is key to avoiding this.

Slow energy (sugar) release foods include:

  • Oats
  • cereals
  • nuts and seeds
  • fiber-rich fruits (apples, berries, bananas)
  • fiber-rich vegetables (broccoli, carrots, leafy greens)
  • beans

3. Increase omega-3 and omega-6 intake.

According to The Mental Health Foundation, deficiencies in these micronutrients have been implicated in a number of mental health problems including depression, and concentration and memory problems.

Foods rich in omega-6 include:

  • Nuts & seeds
  • Meat, poultry, fish & eggs (in moderation)
  • Soybeans
  • Safflower & sunflower oils

Foods rich in omega-3 include:

  • Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, trout)
  • Walnuts
  • Flax and chia seeds
  • Tofu and soybeans

4. Increase Vitamin D intake.

Rates of depression are higher in people with Vitamin D deficiency compared to people who have adequate levels of vitamin D. Lack of Vitamin D is understood to be a key factor in Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD), a depression that commonly happens between autumn and winter when we see less sunshine. It normally subsides in spring and summer months when days are longer and there is more sunshine.

Sources of Vitamin D include:

  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna)
  • Fortified foods, like milk/plant-based milk and orange juice often have it added
  • Sunshine is not a food but the best natural source of Vitamin D

5. Increase Folic Acid intake.

Increased Folic Acid, Folate or B9, intake has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression.

Foods rich in Folic Acid include:

  • Leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale
  • Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Whole grains

Resources:

https://www.nutritionist-resource.org.uk/articles/nutrition-and-mental-health.html

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/nutrition-and-mental-health-is-there-a-link#Treating-mental-health-conditions

https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/un_policy_brief-covid_and_mental_health_final.pdf

https://www.foodsmatter.com/conference_reports/articles/mental-resilience-fab-11-14.html

https://www.diabetes.co.uk/nutrition/simple-carbs-vs-complex-carbs.html

https://www.oxfordcbt.co.uk/diet-for-mental-health/

About the author:

Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers across Europe and North America. Heather led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index, during her time working for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind. She’s also directed content for some of the largest international workplace wellbeing events and has given a TEDx Talk soon to be released in May 2021 called, Empathy Is The Superpower You Need. 

She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces toward normalizing mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.