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How fuelling the brain can boost mental health

What we eat in tough times impacts how we feel about ourselves, how we approach situations, and also how we come out the other side of those tough times.

University of Canterbury School of Psychology, Speech and Hearing Professor Julia Rucklidge has dedicated her career to researching the role nutrition plays in mental health.

Why should we care about feeding our brain nourishing food?

When it comes to the crucial foundational things we need to be looking at in terms of overall health and wellbeing, Julia says nutrition is at the very base.

Making sure that we are well nourished ensures we are more resilient when things come along that are difficult or stressful.

"It means making sure the fuel tank in your brain is full and by that I mean full of really good nourishing food and nutrients – micronutrients especially, which are essential to the brain to operate, function and do what it needs to do."

Introducing the nutrient-dense (non) diet

Julia says there is ample research that shows we need to be eating nutrient-dense food in order to recover or improve our brain health – and stay mentally well.

“The more you eat a diet that is super healthy which is high in fish, legumes, nuts, healthy fats, fruits and veges – then the more resilient you are against developing a mental health problem but also the more you can help yourself get out of a mental health problem, and improve depression and anxiety.”

“If you’re eating mostly ultra-processed foods you’re just not going to get the adequate amount of nutrients so you’re running a brain on empty. So you might have a Ferrari but it’s not going to work if you have no fuel.

“Nutrients are essential for making things like neuro-transmitters, serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline, all of these really important chemicals that are required for brain communication. Making these chemicals requires an ample supply of vitamins and minerals and you simply don’t get vitamins and minerals in an adequate amount out of your ultra-processed food,” she says.

Eating well is not a fad diet

Julia stresses that to eat nourishing food is not something you do for a week or even a month – and it is definitely not a diet.

“This is a complete overhaul and change in your habits that is for a lifetime.”

“If you really want your brain to be as resilient and as robust in your older years then you need to make sure you’re feeding it well now,” she says.

Doing your best in lockdown

Lockdown can be really tough and impact a person’s ability to eat well, depending on their individual situation.

“If you’re expected to work full time and also parent, you are going to be stretched in every direction. That might be a situation where it is harder to make sure you are well nourished.”

Then there are those who might have minimal to no dependants and no commute means there is a free up of time, which can mean more time to put into cooking nourishing foods.

“Some people tend to bake more bread or do more baking but I do want to acknowledge not everyone can do that or their situation is more challenging to be able to do that.”

Start with baby steps

Julia suggests that when you put something in your mouth, ask yourself this:

‘Is it going to nourish my brain or not?’

“Maybe that will lead to a slightly different choice.”

Swapping out items can be as easy as:

  • Nuts over potato chips
  • Carrot stick dipped in hummus over a chocolate bar

These are choices that don’t require a lot of resource in terms of the cooking skills or having to engage in cooking. Actively avoiding making ‘bad habits during lockdown’ is also important.

“Avoid excess use of alcohol and be mindful that you’re not going down a slippery slope of drinking every day.”

Then for those who find it overwhelming and are asking ‘but where to start?’ when it comes to switching up meals, Julia suggests starting with just one meal, which could be breakfast.

“It won’t be something that comes out of a cereal cardboard box. If you can, eggs, fried up mushrooms, spinach with tomatoes, and avocado on a piece of wholegrain toast is a nourishing breakfast. Starting the day well with nutrient dense food is important.”

Ask yourself ‘what’s that one small thing I can do today’? Like, chia seed pudding mixed with homemade granola and fruit for breakfast – it takes ten minutes the night before to make chia seed pudding and is delicious!”

Eating by the seasons

Julia admits she does “go on a bit too much about kale” but it’s ideal for us to be eating lots of right now and makes for a nourishing snack. She likes to cut it up into small pieces, remove the stalks, drizzle with some olive oil, little salt and then bake at 175 degrees Fahrenheit for 5-10 mins until the edges are brown but are not burnt.

It’s one of the examples of an easy thing we can do “with just a little bit of knowledge”. This is where our environment has changed over the past two decades, says Julia.

“Some people have never gained the skill of cooking and that is something we really need to be reversing. Our kids need to know how to cook – and it can be done so cheaply as well.”

Cooking cheaply is Julia’s personal approach to cooking and she regularly uses things like lentils and black beans.

Can I still eat my comfort foods?

“You’ve still got to have fun and enjoy life,” says Julia.

As Julia says, as long as you’ve previously provided the brain with nourishing foods, then it’s ok to feed it with less nourishing foods every now and then.

“An occasional tasty treat is absolutely fine. Enjoy it!”

She also encourages people trying to get off an ultra-processed diet to stick with it as cravings for sweet things will go away.

“Keep persisting and that should get better.”

So how does Julia look after herself during lockdown?

Throughout her life and in very stressful times, Julia has always prioritised sleep.

“Don’t ever compromise on the number of hours you sleep.”

She also takes the dog for walks, does yoga, cycles to work one to two times a week, has meditative baths, reads novels, makes sure she stays socially connected, sits down for meals with her family sans devices, and tries to limit her focus on the news.

AR SM Sep recipe update 45 45
AR SM Sep recipe update 46
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