A word about eating disorders:
A healthy diet is a big part of any successful self-care plan. Nutrition has been linked with emotional, physical, and cognitive health. Eating a healthy diet gives your brain and your body the vitamins and minerals needed to stay well. However, healthy eating habits can be difficult to maintain, especially if you have a mental health disorder. You’re not alone if you find yourself experiencing changes in your appetite as a result of your disorder, or find yourself gaining weight as a side effect of your psychiatric medication. Make sure you discuss concerns about medication side effects or significant appetite changes with your healthcare provider.
Your diet affects:
- the brain neurochemistry that controls mood and response to stress
- the way your brain and body interact
- the higher brain functions that control learning, memory and intellectual functioning
Whether deciding what, when or how much to eat, the key is balance. The strategies and tools outlined here will help you develop a more balanced approach to eating, and to incorporate some specific ideas that may lessen your mental health symptoms.
What am I eating now?
Making changes to how you eat is simple, but not easy. Breaking bad habits and establishing new, healthy routines always requires patience. And because eating has both a physical and emotional component (providing comfort, familiarity, and even recreation), developing an achievable eating plan may be a particularly challenging part of your self-care plan.
To make a start, it’s good to first have a clear, honest picture of what you’re currently eating. The best way to see how you’re using food is to keep a food diary for one week, writing down what, when, and how much you’re eating. By also noting how you’re feeling at different points during the day in your food diary, you’ll get an even more complete picture of how your emotions and your eating behaviors may be interacting. See SuperTracker.usda.gov to complete an online food diary.
What should my food plan look like?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently moved away from the traditional “food pyramid” in favor of a new icon, called MyPlate. The MyPlate icon is easy to understand and it helps to promote healthy food choices based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
- The United States Department of Agriculture’s ChooseMyPlate website offers personalized eating plans and interactive tools to help you plan and assess your food choices based on American Dietary Guidelines.
- The U-M Healing Foods Pyramid reflects the University’s latest thinking about the connection between what we eat and how we feel.
Tips for Healthy Eating
If you have a medical condition such as diabetes or food allergies, or other dietary restrictions including those related to taking certain psychiatric medications, you should follow your healthcare provider’s specific dietary recommendations.
Eat small and frequent meals. Small and frequent meals can help prevent you from getting too hungry, which can lead to overeating. This approach also feeds your brain a steady supply of glucose which helps to keep cravings at a minimum.
Keep a regular meal schedule. Eating on a regular schedule can also help prevent you from getting too hungry, help you to plan for healthier meals, and help you get a good night’s sleep. Here are some tips for developing a regular eating schedule:
- Schedule your classes so that you allow yourself enough time each day to have lunch and dinner. Rushing between classes can often lead to unhealthy eating options and habits.
- If you are working a long day, make sure you take your lunch or dinner break regardless of how busy you are. You are entitled to these breaks. Breaks can also help relieve stress by giving you some downtime from the busy environment.
- Keep some healthy and easy-to-grab food options on hand for days when you know you will not have time to take a break. This way you can bring the food with you wherever you need to go and can still eat at or near your regular eating time. To avoid spending a lot of money, invite your roommate/s to join in and split the costs with you.
- Schedule a regular time to have dinner with your friends in the residence hall cafeteria. It always helps to have friends supporting these habits.
- Take turns with your friends making inexpensive dinners at each other’s apartments/houses one or two times per week. Students who have busy academic schedules, such as graduate students, may have difficulty finding time to see their friends. This is also a great way to have a set time to catch up with them.
- Late dinners can’t always be avoided. If you do go out to eat late at night, ask your server to wrap up half of your meal before you even get started. This can help to prevent overeating late at night which may affect your quality of sleep.
Did you know? If you are a currently enrolled U-M student, you can make an appointment at the University Health Service Nutrition Clinic for free!
Services include individual food-related counseling with a registered dietitian to discuss diet and disease, weight loss or weight gain, and establishing a healthy diet.
Think ahead. Pack healthy snacks to avoid between-meal cravings.
Don’t skip breakfast. Skipping breakfast is associated with reduced problem solving ability, lower energy and decreased motivation. Eating breakfast may also help you to manage your hunger and food intake throughout the day.
Consider taking a multivitamin*. A standard multivitamin can help ensure an adequate daily intake of vitamins and minerals that may improve mental health, including Vitamin 12 and Folic Acid.
*Make your healthcare provider aware of any dietary supplements you might be considering, as some have been shown to interact negatively with certain medications.
Try to include Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. Research suggests that Omega-3s play a role in many brain functions, from regulating mood to increasing cognitive abilities. Omega-3s can be found in fish including tuna and salmon, or in fish oil supplements.
If you live in a Residence Hall:
Aim for variety, and let color guide you. Ideally, your daily menu should include a “rainbow” of fresh fruits and vegetables to ensure you’re getting a balanced mix of nutrients. For example, eating plenty of leafy greens can help boost your intake of Folic Acid. Try to find a variety of different colored fruits and vegetables that you enjoy and work them into your diet.
Remember that your beverage choices are as important as your food choices.
- Drinking plenty of water is recommended, to keep the body properly hydrated.
- Limit caffeinated beverages like coffee, soda, or energy drinks, which can have a stimulating effect at first, only to be followed by a drop in energy level and mood. Here are some suggestions for energy boosting snacks that can be better alternatives:
- Fresh fruits like bananas, apples, or berries
- Yogurt with granola
- Low-fat cheeses
- Almonds and walnuts
- Hummus and red peppers
- Half of a sandwich
- A single-serving of popcorn
- Avoid alcohol which can act as a depressant and can interfere with your sleep patterns.
Know that all carbohydrates are not created equal. Processed sugars and refined carbohydrates provide only a temporary feeling of increased energy and fullness. That initial boost may be followed by a desire for more sweets and starches to prop up your mood and energy level. A better choice is complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and healthy grains to ensure maximum nutritional and digestive benefits with fewer “spikes” that can disrupt brain chemistry.
Limit fast food and junk food. Both high sugar and high fat meals can have a negative effect on mood. Use the list below for some ideas for snacks that taste good and also contain great nutrients to fuel your body:
Learn to listen to your body’s signals to know when to eat, and when to stop.
- Eat when you feel physical hunger.
- Try to eat slowly and mindfully. It takes several minutes for your body to signal fullness. Enjoy each bite and avoid overeating by stopping before you feel full.
Regulate your portion size. Many of us tend to underestimate the amount of food we eat and overestimate recommended portion sizes. Use the following tools for tips on regulating portion sizes:
- MHealthy Nutrition Factsheet: Managing Your Portions
- MHealthy “The Great Plate”: Healthy Portion Guidelines
Don’t give up everything you enjoy. Give yourself permission to indulge on occasion. Remember: everything in moderation.
Pulling it all together
Just as a food journal can help you assess your current eating habits, it can also help you to track your progress as you adopt a “new” nutrition plan. A food diary can even be expanded to include recording physical activity and adherence to your medication plan, and to chart the emotions you experience during the day. All of this information gives you a clearer picture of how your self-care activities are working together to help you manage your mental health disorder.
Next > Sleep