The events of the past year may have left many of us feeling stressed, anxious, depressed, and likely disconnected from our normal routines. If you feel like this has also taken a toll on your diet and eating habits, then take a deep breath in and out, show yourself some grace and compassion, and know that you are not alone.

During times of stress, it can be common to look to foods that would normally produce feelings of pleasure, enjoyment, and comfort. On one hand, it is helpful to remember that food can and should be enjoyable and is part of the solution to allow us to feel our best. On the other hand, the typical “comfort” foods that we crave often include ingredients that are not ideal for us -- refined carbohydrates, high-fat foods and sugar-sweetened foods or beverages. Unfortunately, these are the foods that are more likely to promote inflammation in the body and when consumed in excess can further increase the risk for chronic diseases.

How to make healthier choices

Many factors can influence our eating habits and food choices, including our mood, cultural or religious practices, our schedules, access to food and certainly our physical health. While eating specific foods may not be a cure for illness or chronic diseases, maintaining a varied and well-balanced diet can help support the different facets of our health -- physical, mental, and emotional.

Remember that your healthful eating habits are part of an investment in your overall self-care practices and well-being.

Here are four tips to help you on the path to eating for better mental health.

1. Consider small, realistic, and attainable goals

Creating new habits can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially with your diet. Instead of making big changes, consider focusing on small, realistic, and attainable goals that are meaningful to you. With time, those goals can add up to nice results and will likely be easier to sustain. Developing daily or weekly “mantras” is a way to help motivate your efforts. For example, a daily mantra to boost your nutrition could be, “Eat something green every day!”

2. What does my body and mind need today?

Adopting a varied and balanced diet is not “one size fits all.” It may help to start each day by asking yourself, “What does my body and mind need today?” Practice mindfulness, and by remaining compassionate and non-judgmental, you may find it easier to maintain those healthy self-care habits  Allow yourself permission to choose foods that are both enjoyable and nourishing for your body.

Choosing foods that contain fiber, protein and healthy fats will help you feel full physically and mentally satisfied. Be sure to also make time for other hobbies and enjoyable activities that can also be an outlet for helping to cope with stress, anxiety or depression.

3. Aim for mostly whole foods and limited processed foods

Let’s face it…our standard American diet is typically rich in pro-inflammatory foods that are often high in calories, saturated fat and added sugars. These types of foods are not always rich in dietary fiber, antioxidants or vitamins and minerals (also known as micronutrients, which are key to your health).

Studies have shown a diet that consists of B vitamins, vitamin D, antioxidants such as vitamin C, minerals magnesium and zinc, as well as omega 3 fatty acids, can benefit our mental health and well-being.  It is possible to get enough of these nutrients from a well-balanced and varied diet. Foods and food groups that are greats sources of these beneficial nutrients includes whole grains, vegetables and fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, as well as fatty fish such as salmon.

Creating flavorful eating experiences by cooking with herbs or spices can further promote mental satiety. Fresh herbs, cinnamon and turmeric all have qualities that provide medicinal benefits for boosting your immune system.

A healthy breakfast recipe to start your day

Looking for an idea of a nutrient-rich breakfast to start your day off strong? Here is my go-to breakfast that I eat most mornings:

A bowl of hot old fashioned (plain) oats made with:

  • unsweetened plant-based milk (or your favorite milk)
  • ground flaxseed
  • optional toppings such as roasted pumpkin seeds, a few berries or dried cranberries, cinnamon

4. Get connected with your food

Taking time to select and/or prepare our food and meals can help ensure a healthy relationship with food. Furthermore, when we share the experience with others, it becomes more meaningful. Whether it’s visiting a farmers market, growing some veggies at home or experimenting in the kitchen cooking a new recipe with family or friends, investing time into connecting with food can bring us joy and happiness.  

As you take some of these steps and fuel your body with healthful, nourishing foods, hopefully your relationship with food will allow you to feel your best - both physically and mentally.

For more tips to improve your well-being and feel better, visit the Being section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Sara Stiles RD, CSOWN, LDN

Sara Stiles, RD, CSOWM, LDN

Sara Stiles, RD, CSOWN, LDN, is the lead bariatric dietitian at the Center for Bariatric Surgery at The Miriam Hospital. She is passionate about helping each patient become successful in improving their quality of life through various lifestyle changes.