The relationship between mental wellbeing and dietary intake is complex. Your nutritional status can impact your mental wellbeing, but equally stress and anxiety can be key contributors to dietary decisions.

The pandemic has created huge strain on so many; from home schooling, to job losses, family pressure, increased illness and changes to what we previously understood to be normal has caused a spike in impaired mental wellbeing.

Stress is something which too many of us experience on an all too regular basis and, unfortunately, this can impact our overall health and our dietary choices.  Remember that whilst diet is important, if it’s causing additional stress then try to remove the pressure by focusing on just one element e.g. increasing fibre, reducing coffee or switching out high sugar snacks.

Acute and chronic stress increases the hormone cortisol and, for some people high levels of cortisol can stimulate the desire for high sugar and high fat foods. It’s common to opt for convenience foods such as chocolate or biscuits when we’re strapped for time, stressed or snowed under with work. However, opting for a handful of nuts, a boiled egg or hummus and carrots is likely to leave you feeling calmer and fuller for longer!

Without getting to into the science, these highly palatable foods suppress the secretion of cortisol. In a nutshell, eating high-sugar, high-fat foods reduces cortisol and, therefore, you feel less stressed immediately. However, this response is short lived and, once you’ve finished eating, your stress response is reactivated and consequently you’re more likely to opt for another high sugar, high fat food to generate the same response.

Throughout the past year, many people have expressed their struggles with lockdown weight gain. Weight gain is hugely complex for some individuals – not only does cortisol drive up appetite but it can also promote abdominal fat storage as cortisol receptors are located around the abdomen.

Dietary components that can impact stress and impair mental wellbeing:

  1. High sugar foods

The consumption of high sugar foods can cause an increase in blood sugar, insulin and cortisol levels which, in turn, leads to feelings of stress and anxiety (in those susceptible).  High sugar foods can stimulate the blood sugar rollercoaster – the spikes and crashes in blood sugar can contribute to increased cravings for high sugar foods. As blood sugar levels fall, so do energy levels and therefore the body stimulates sugar cravings to provide fast releasing energy. Opting for whole fruits can be a great way to provide you with a source of sugar without causing a blood sugar spike and crash. Fruits in their natural form contain fibre which helps to slow down the release of sugar into the blood stream.

2. Caffeine

With more people working from home, coffee has become more and more accessible. However, high caffeine consumption can stimulate stress and anxiety in those who are prone. Caffeine impairs the release of adenosine (a neurotransmitter which is released slowly throughout the day to leave you feeling tired) and GABA (Gamma Aminobutyric Acid – another neurotransmitter which leaves you feeling calm). The combination of the lack of adenosine and GABA can generate feelings of heightened anxiety. As a result, it may be best to limit caffeine consumption and switch up your coffee with herbal teas instead.

3. Magnesium

This nutrient is often not given enough coverage yet it is required in over 600 processes in the body. Levels can quickly become depleted when the body is under stress, which can impact energy levels, sleep quality, and the ability to actually manage stress.

Ensure you’re consuming magnesium rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, dark chocolate, and beans and pulses to name a few. Try adding a handful of spinach into your smoothie, adding 80g of broccoli to your dinners or even roasting asparagus to snack on with hummus! Additionally, adding a can of beans to bolognaise sauces, curries and soups is another great way to increase your magnesium intake.

4. Alcohol

Throughout the pandemic many people turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism or a way to distinguish the weekends from the weekdays.  however for those who are susceptible to stress and anxiety a high alcohol consumption can impair GABA secretion and reduce the production of the happy hormone serotonin, which in turn may cause a surge in stress, anxiety and low mood. Alcohol-free spirits, wines and beers are fantastic alternatives for those individuals who find alcohol contributes to impaired mental wellbeing.

Top tips for managing mental wellbeing through the diet

As we’re coming out of the pandemic and with the restrictions easing there’s likely to be mixed feelings. Some people may be ecstatic to be resume an element of normality; others may experience feelings of nervousness, stress and anxiety. Below are my top tips for supporting your mental wellbeing through your diet as we return to normality.

  1. Snack more – but snack right

Going for long periods of time without eating can cause your blood sugar levels to fall and, when they do, you’re more likely to feel hungrier, experience cravings for high sugar foods and overeat. Additionally, low blood sugar can contribute to anxiety with feelings such as dizziness and fatigue. Where possible, opt for a protein rich snack as protein helps to balance blood sugar levels and will keep you fuller for longer. Nuts, boiled eggs, roasted beans and chickpeas or peanut butter sachets are all great on the go, protein-rich snacks

2. Switch out a coffee for a herbal alternative

If you are prone to stress and anxiety, you may find that coffee and other sources of caffeine can contribute to symptoms. When you’re back at the office, it can be all too tempting to take up your colleague’s offer to make you a coffee. Where possible, opt for a herbal tea instead as this can help to keep your symptoms at bay. That’s not to say you have to give up coffee altogether – start small and switch out 1 or 2.

3. Pack in the greens     
When you’re out and about or buying lunch on the go try to pack in the green veggies. Greens are rich in magnesium which is important for supporting energy and the production of the stress hormones. Incorporate a side of greens such as spinach, broccoli or sautéed kale to any meal or try adding rocket or spinach to your sandwiches.

4. Pack in the fibre        
The gut and the brain are connected and high levels of bad bacteria in the gut can be associated with poor mental wellbeing. Limiting high sugar foods and increasing plant foods and fibre rich foods can help to nurture the gut towards a more favourable bacteria profile. Fibre plays an important role in feeding the good bacteria within the gut. It’s recommended to consume 30g of fibre per day. Snacking on fruit and vegetables and switching your white grains for wholegrains can be a simple way to increase your total fibre intake. To give you some idea, an apple provides 4g of fibre, a portion of almonds contains around 3g, a serving of chickpeas contains around 7g, and 2 slices of wholegrain bread provides 3g. If you’re buying your sandwiches on the way to work opt for wholegrain bread or try out a bean or lentil based salad instead.

Jenna is the Team PB nutritionist. Jenna will be helping each of the 6 members to understand what has been holding them back in the past and to identify any barriers or bad habits when it comes to diet. Jenna will also be ensuring they’re equipped with the tools and support to help create healthy life-long habits for when the six-week programme ends.

To follow the Team PB members stories, challenges and achievements visit David Lloyd Clubs Instagram and Facebook channels, and for support and information on how you can go on your own health journey keep checking back to the blog – we’re going to be covering it all!