Posted in Health and Nutrition, lifestyle, self care, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Wheel of Wellness – Physical – Part 3: Diet

For the final part of the ‘physical’ segment of The Wheel Of Wellness, I’ll be focusing on diet and the impact it can have on our physical and mental wellbeing. As part of this, I’ll be considering how the way we feel can impact our dietary choices and how what we eat and drink can directly affect both our mood and our energy levels.

What do we mean by the term ‘diet’?

Many people believe that the term diet refers to a specific eating plan where an individual eats less food because they want to lose weight / be thinner or only eats specific kinds of food e.g. those which are considered good for you, and cuts out bad or unhealthy foods. However, the simplest definition of diet is the food or drink which is typically eaten or drunk by a person or group of people. A diet can be incredibly healthy, extremely unhealthy or somewhere in-between the two. Personally, I prefer a happy medium where my diet is generally nutritious and balanced but still includes some treats and a moderate amount of alcohol. In fact, ‘moderation’ is very much a key word when it comes to a balanced diet.

Eating a healthy and balanced diet

There’s no shortage of information and guidance online about eating healthily to maintain good physical health but the most reliable place to look in the UK has to be the NHS website, specifically these pages and those found through the hyperlinks. Today, however, I’d like to focus on how what we eat and drink can have an impact on how we feel and also consider how making small changes to our diet can help us manage our mental health better by improving our mood, giving us more energy and helping us to think more clearly.

Mental health conditions, mood and our diet

How we feel can greatly influence what we choose to eat and drink. For example, if we’re struggling with anxiety, stress, depression or feeling down, our appetite can be affected and our daily routine might change, which could impact on our eating patterns. During periods of difficulty, some people won’t feel like preparing or eating food at all, whereas others will find comfort in doing so and may overeat or binge eat.

What we choose to eat or drink at different times has been shown to affect our mental functioning and can potentially worsen symptoms of conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression and bipolar disorder. Eating too much of some foods and not enough of others can contribute to ongoing or worsening of our emotional state. Certain drinks, particularly if consumed to excess can also cause problems too.

Keeping a food and drink diary

I’ve previously written a post about keeping a food journal to help with diet and weight loss but recording what you eat and drink, how much you consume and when can also help you to notice the effect on your emotions particularly if you record how you feel afterwards. Over time you might work out which foods and drinks make you feel good or better and which make you feel worse. You might also learn which keep you awake, help you sleep or give you gut problems. If you do make improvements to your diet, you can also measure your progress over time.

Some tips for making positive changes to your diet to improve your mood

As well as using a food and drink diary to find out what helps or worsens your mood, the following tips can be really useful if you want to improve your diet with a view to being more healthy and regulating your emotional state.

Eating regularly

Even if you don’t feel like it or you’re really busy, it’s important to try to make sure you eat regularly. If your blood sugar drops it can make you feel tired, irritable and depressed. Eating regularly throughout the day and choosing foods that release energy slowly will help to keep your sugar levels steady.

Try to avoid food and drinks which cause your blood sugar to rise and fall rapidly such as sweets, biscuits, sugary drinks and alcohol and instead, go for complex carbohydrates and protein rich foods. Also, make sure you don’t miss meals. Eating breakfast gets the day off to a good start, particularly if you choose wholegrain cereal, protein rich eggs or low fat yogurt and fruit such as berries, apple or fresh mango. If you’re struggling with lack of appetite, try eating smaller portions of food spaced out more regularly throughout the day.

Stay hydrated

The most vital substance for a healthy body and mind is water. If you don’t drink enough during the day, you will likely find it difficult to concentrate or think clearly. You might also suffer from headaches, fatigue or constipation which are not great for your mood either.

It’s recommended that you drink at least eight glasses of fluid a day and this can include tea, juices and squash and smoothies. Coffee can also count towards your daily intake, but you should also be wary of the effects of too much caffeine.

Managing caffeine consumption

Caffeine is a natural stimulant which gives you a quick burst of energy and can make you feel more mentally alert and attentive. On the other hand, it can also cause you to feel anxious, depressed, nervous, restless or irritable. It can also give some people an upset stomach if they have too much or prevent much needed sleep, especially if you consume it before bed.

Caffeine is found in a range of beverages including coffee, tea, cola, some chocolate drinks and a range of manufactured energy drinks. Also, despite its name, decaffeinated coffee still contains a small amount of caffeine. If you regularly drink a lot of the above each day, there’s a very good chance you will become dependent on them and display withdrawal symptoms if you cut down a lot or stop consuming caffeine altogether.

Although many people enjoy caffeinated drinks, there are quite a few benefits of reducing your intake. These include:

  • better gut health
  • fewer headaches
  • easing of anxiety and panic
  • better quality sleep
  • improved skin tone, less signs of aging
  • lower blood pressure
  • healthier and whiter teeth
  • better able to naturally regulate your energy levels

Remember though, that suddenly stopping caffeine isn’t a good idea as this can result in short term symptoms of withdrawal. It’s best to cut down slowly if you want to experience the above benefits.

Managing alcohol consumption

Regularly drinking more than 14 units of alcohol each week is known to cause problems relating to your physical health making you at greater risk of a variety of cancers, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, gastric issues, liver damage and memory loss. Consumption of alcohol can also negatively impact on your mental health, but, despite this, many people turn to excessive drinking during periods of difficulty and/or mental illness.

Alcohol is known to have a depressant effect which can lead to fluctuations in mood and signs of deteriorating mental health. It is also associated with disrupted sleep which can result in poor energy levels, and worsening fatigue or exhaustion.

Avoiding alcohol altogether at times of difficulty would be the most beneficial, but even cutting down can significantly help with mood.

Planning ahead

Finding time to eat well can often be quite difficult, particularly if you’re struggling with one or more aspects of your mental health. Planning ahead when you’re feeling well and enjoying preparing and eating food can help. This can include batch cooking and storing healthy and nutritious meals in the freezer for times when you can’t face cooking. Creating a list of quick and easy meals to refer to can also be useful when you are struggling for ideas.

Final thoughts…

If you think you would benefit from making some changes to your diet to improve your physical and mental health it’s best to start slowly and take small steps towards where you want to be. Changing your whole diet suddenly is likely to leave you feeling overwhelmed and can cause you to go back to the bad habits that you are used to. Making one change at a time can also help you measure the effect on your mood and your general wellbeing.

We can often put a lot of pressure on ourself to eat a healthy diet but it’s important to enjoy the food and drinks you consume and not be too hard on yourself. Try to recognise any achievements large or small, and give yourself credit and praise for any improvements made. Also, remember that other factors can help your mental health and emotional state as well including getting plenty of fresh air and sunshine, doing some physical activity each day and getting a good quality sleep.

I hope you’ve found today’s blog post helpful and it’s given you some ideas on how to make small improvements to your diet. If you think that you need to make some dramatic changes to your food and drink consumption, it’s best to seek help from a professional. The first step would be to see your GP who can make some suggestions or refer you to a dietician. A specialist can then help you identify specific issues with your diet or identify or manage any eating disorders or food intolerances you may have.

Posted in Health and Nutrition, life hacks, lifestyle, meditation, mental health, self care, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Wheel Of Wellness – Physical – Part 2: Sleep

For the second part of the Physical element of The Wheel Of Wellness I will today be looking at the importance of quality sleep to maintain good physical and mental health. I’ve previously published a couple of blog posts on the topic of sleep namely 5 ways to get better sleep tonight and 5 things to do in the evening to ensure a restful night’s sleep and a productive next day which you may like to have a read of as well. Many people have issues with their sleep for one reason or another and if you’re one of them, you might want to prioritise this area of the wellness wheel and spend some time learning about the effect that sleep (or lack of) affects your body and your life and pick up some tips on how to manage this aspect of your physical health.

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep has a huge impact on our health and wellbeing throughout our lives. Anyone who has ever had difficulty sleeping will know that the quality and quantity of our slumber dramatically affects our mind, body, general quality of life and our safety. While you are sleeping, your body is actively working and preparing you for the next day.

The following is a list of the basic functions of sleep which illustrate the importance of a good night’s kip:

  • physical restoration
  • mood regulation
  • cleaning the brain of toxins
  • information processing and memorization (committing things to memory for later recall, the storing of visual, auditory or tactical information)
  • strengthening the immune system

In children and teens, sleep also supports growth and development.

In addition, further benefits of quality sleep include:

  • better heart health
  • stress reduction
  • generally makes you feel more alert throughout the day
  • can help you lose weight (you’re less likely to crave high sugar or junk foods)
  • reduced risk of anxiety and depression
  • improved appearance – healthy, glowing skin (versus dark circles under eyes, dehydrated complexion, breakouts and redness from lack of sleep, plus comments from friends and family along the lines of “you look like ****)
  • better concentration (hopefully leading to improved productivity)
  • better decision making
  • stronger immune system (so less likely to get ill / feel run down etc)
  • boosted creativity (better ideas and use of imagination)
  • better motoric response (including quicker reactions)
  • enhanced sporting performance
  • reduced risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke and obesity
  • better emotional regulation (meaning amongst other things that you’re more likely to get along with others and less likely to become overwhelmed by your feelings)

Sleep and wakefulness is controlled by two biological processes: Sleep Homeostasis, commonly known as ‘sleep pressure’ and The Circadian rhythm, otherwise known as ‘the body clock’.

What is sleep pressure?

Sleep pressure is basically, the brain’s desire and need for sleep. The more time you’ve been awake for, the greater the sleep pressure. When you wake up in the morning, you should have very little need for sleep (if you’ve had a good night) so sleep pressure is very low. As we get on with our day, the sleep pressure begins to grow so that by evening time sleep pressure is much higher, making us feel sleeping and in need of our beds! By morning, following a good night’s sleep, our sleep pressure will have reset and be back to little or no desire for further sleep.

In order to make sure that we have the right amount of sleep pressure present by bed time, we should really make sure that we get up and go to bed at the same time each day. However, I know that a lot of people will have a lie in on a weekend, which tends to make it difficult to switch off and sleep on a Sunday night (especially if Sunday night dread is at play). Taking naps should also be avoided as this can reduce sleep pressure too. If you absolutely must have a nap, tried to take it before 3pm and make sure it lasts for less than one hour.

What is meant by the term Circadian rhythm AKA our ‘body clock’?

Like all living things, humans have a circadian rhythm which is the brain’s way of aligning the body with the environment. Our sleep/wake cycle follows this 24 hour rhythm. During the day, exposure to light helps us to feel alert, awake and active. As night/darkness falls our internal body clock starts to produce melatonin, a hormone which promotes sleep.

You can help promote a healthy circadian rhythm by seeking natural light (sunshine) during the day, getting some daily exercise, avoiding caffeinated drinks after mid-day, limiting light before bed and having a set bed time / wake up routine which prepares the body for sleep at night and encourages wakefulness first thing in the morning. I’ll discuss some of these in more detail later.

Creating the right bedroom environment

It’s really important to create a comfortable and relaxing environment in your bedroom to help you fall asleep quickly and easily. We invested in a ‘posturepedic’ mattress which is pocket sprung with a latex top. We’ve had it for years and it’s still completely supportive and so comfortable. Every time we go on holiday, we always look forward to being back in our own bed! The best sheets and pillowcases we’ve found for softness and durability are bamboo ones. An added bonus for us is that they’re breathable and hypoallergenic too.

Your bedroom should also be nice and dark as the absence of light sends a signal to your body that it’s time to get some rest. A nice thick pair of curtains or light blocking blinds are essential for this (we have blinds and lined curtains which allow just enough morning light to help us wake up). Some people also like to wear a sleep mask to block out light and these are also good for shift workers who are in bed during the day.

Other essentials for a calm and relaxing space include as little clutter as possible and a quiet environment to minimise distractions. Just the right room temperature – not too hot and not too cold is also helpful for inducing sleep (experts recommend around 18.3 degrees Celsius / 65 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal). Some people also swear by lavender as a soothing and sedating scent but I find it sets my allergies off which is certainly not sleep inducing!

Sleep experts also suggest that your bedroom should be strictly for two purposes only – sleeping and sexual activity. This means it should not be used for:

  • eating, drinking or smoking
  • dealing with bills, reading letters or any form of paperwork
  • using technology or looking at screens e.g. TV, mobile phone, laptop, tablet etc.

I also like to read fiction books on my Kindle Paperwhite in bed but I do find that as long as the screen is pretty dim, I become really sleepy after a couple of chapters. If you feel that reading certain books stimulate your brain too much, bedtime reading may be best avoided.

Diet and sleep

Most people know that caffeine isn’t good for sleep due to the stimulants it contains so if you have trouble sleeping, it’s best not to drink coffee or other caffeinated drinks such as cola, sports and energy drinks for at least 4 hours before bed. Having a large meal before bed is also likely to keep you awake as your body will still be digesting the food. Also, you may find yourself suffering from indigestion or acid reflux if you eat or drink too late. If you do find yourself craving a late evening snack a small amount of nuts, a banana or a small bowl of oatmeal with berries should be safe to eat.

Alcohol is well known to cause a slowing of brain activity and make you feel relaxed and sleepy but beware that the consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially in excess has been shown to cause poor quality sleep and shorter duration so you may find yourself waking up repeatedly in the night or not feeling very refreshed in the morning. Night-time drinking may also result in acid reflux too!

A good daily routine to help you sleep

Throughout the day, it’s important to get as much natural light as you can. This could include working next to a window, taking regular outdoor breaks during the day e.g. sitting in the garden with your morning cuppa and having an al fresco lunch. Obviously this is more difficult during the Winter months but even short walks outside, maybe with a nice, hot drink can make all the difference.

Exercise (or being active) including aerobic workouts, resistance training and yoga during the day can also help with sleep. Just make sure you don’t do anything which elevates your pulse rate for at least 3 hours before bed.

In the evening time, it’s a good idea to do relaxing activities which can calm the body and the mind. This could include listening to some soothing music, reading a book, doing some meditation, writing in your journal to help put the day to rest (see my 5 ways to get better sleep tonight for an explanation of how), enjoy a warm bath or hot shower.

If you regularly struggle to sleep, something you should definitely try is avoiding using electronic devices for at least an hour before bed. This is helpful for two reasons – one, a lot of online content can be mentally or emotionally stimulating (including emails) and two, the light that these devices emit can affect your body clock by increasing alertness and delaying the release of melatonin. If you must use your phone, at least set the blue light filter or night time mode to come on after around 7pm.

What if I find myself wide awake in bed?

After approximately 20 minutes of lying awake (estimate this, do not use your clock), you should get up out of bed and leave the bedroom. Either do something boring or something really relaxing (not something stimulating (no looking at your phone!) until you start to feel tired, and then go back to bed. If you’re not asleep after another estimated 20 minutes, get up again and repeat the process. If this happens regularly, spend some time during the day assessing what you think might be causing the problem and try making some changes to your routine.

A word about sleep disorders

There are a number of sleep disorders which can seriously affect the quality of your sleep. Some of the common ones are:

  • Sleep walking / talking
  • Nightmares / night terrors
  • Sleep apnoea (obstructed airway)
  • Sleep paralysis (a temporary inability to move that occurs right after falling asleep or waking up)
  • Hypnogogia / Hypnopompia (hallucinations occurring as you wake up or fall asleep)

If you suspect that you may be struggling with any of the above, it’s really important to speak to your GP who can offer medical advice or make a referral to a sleep specialist.

Final thoughts…

If you are struggling with your sleep right now you have my completely sympathy as I’ve had real issues with insomnia in the past. However, it’s usually quite easy to identify the contributing factors which are preventing a good night’s sleep. Finding solutions to the problems is a little more difficult but I hope this blog post has given you some ideas. Remember that quality sleep is vital to your wellbeing and it’s worth investing time and energy into this aspect of your physical health.

Posted in Bullet journaling, goal setting, Health and Nutrition, Planning and journaling, Setting goals and intentions

Monday Matters: A mini guide to keeping a food journal to help with diet and weight loss

Earlier this month, I talked about how I might start a food journal to help me track my eating and drinking. Before starting, I researched the benefits of this practice and spent time learning about what I should include. A number of studies have shown that people who keep a food journal or diary are more likely to be successful in losing weight and keeping it off. According to my reading, the simple act of recording everything that you eat and drink each day can help you consume less calories and make healthier choices which aids weight loss.

What are the benefits of keeping a food journal?

Writing down what you eat and drink and how you feel at regular points during the day can help in a number of ways including:

  • Increased awareness of what you eat
  • Shows you how much you eat and drink in a typical day
  • Highlights reasons why you eat and drink e.g. boredom, stress, mid-afternoon slump, feeling sad etc
  • Begin to see if you’re eating too little or too much
  • Able to roughly track your calorie consumption and make comparisons between this and calories burnt each day
  • Able to check hydration levels – some people mistake thirst for hunger
  • Increased mindfulness i.e. awareness of eating, drinking and any patterns
  • Able to see where you could tweak your diet to make it more healthy and balanced

What do I need to start a food journal?

As many of you will know, I prefer pen and paper methods so I decided to use my bullet journal to record everything. I kept it simple with a title and a bit of washi tape and I used double page spreads to give me plenty of writing room. Any notebook and pen will do but it’s helpful if it’s something you can take out with you in your bag so you can record on the go – recording everything at the end of a long and busy day is quite an onerous task!

If you prefer to keep digital records you could create journalling pages in Notion or MS Word on your phone or tablet. You could also set up a simple spreadsheet to include date, time, foodstuff and how you’re feeling. Another option is to use an app like My Fitness Pal which can help you measure calorie consumption – beware though that it will keep trying to persuade you to sign up for a free trial or pay a monthly fee! I tried logging things on My Fitness Pal to see if I liked it and I found it really quick and easy. You can scan the barcode on your food packets and it shows the calorie content. You can also see and record other nutritional information but some details are only accessible on the paid for premium version.

Tips for getting the most out of your food journal

  • Log absolutely everything you eat and drink even if it’s something small or very low in calories e.g. one biscuit, a square of chocolate or a single boiled sweet. In doing this, you’ll have a full picture of your current diet.
  • When you log a food or drink, consider why you are eating and how you’re feeling e.g. a glass of wine to wind down after a long and busy day, feeling shattered etc.
  • Make sure you record how specific foods are cooked e.g. boiled, fried, roasted, steamed etc.
  • Include information about dressings, sauces and toppings and the amount e.g. 2 tsps of French dressing on salad.
  • Think about adding information about where you’re eating / drinking and who you are eating with e.g. at the dining table with family, at my desk, in XX restaurant, in a cafĂ© with my partner etc.
  • Jot down what you are doing at the time e.g. watching TV, at the computer, having a catch up with a friend etc.
  • Be really specific about the type of drinks e.g. half a pint of beer, caramel macchiato, small mug, 200ml of orange juice etc.
  • Don’t forget to include alcoholic beverages and the amount e.g. one shot glass of vodka with 100ml of coke etc.
  • Think about logging the calories of meals at a restaurant if this information is on the menu, or check out the packaging of foodstuffs and drinks consumed at home.
  • Write down if you get any cravings and if you gave in to them or distracted yourself with an activity.
  • Note down how hungry you are when you eat.
  • Record your food and drink as soon as possible after eating/drinking so you don’t forget things. If you use a notebook or paper and don’t want to take it out with you, try making a quick note on your phone to transfer to your journal when you get home.

Analysing your food and drink log

Once you’ve recorded your food and drink for 5 days or so, consider what it tells you. So, for example:

  • Am I getting my five portions of fruit and veg each day?
  • How healthy is my diet overall?
  • Does my diet include wholegrains?
  • Does my mood affect my eating and drinking habits?
  • How balanced is my diet – am I eating too much or too little of something?
  • Do I have snacks and how healthy are they?
  • Am I paying full attention when I eat or am I often busy doing something else? (how mindful am I?)
  • Which areas of my diet could be improved upon? e.g. I could eat more vegetables, I could cut down on takeaways and try to do more cooking from scratch, I could eat a piece of fruit as a snack instead of a chocolate bar in the afternoon etc.

Setting some healthy eating goals

When you’ve identified areas for improvement, you could have a go at setting a couple of healthy eating goals for yourself. I recommend using the SMART framework for this so you can measure your progress easily. So, for example, when I was depressed, I struggled to eat breakfast and got into the habit of having a bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes each morning as they’re easy to eat. When I started to feel better, I continued to eat this cereal as it had become a habit and one which I enjoyed. My husband suggested I try eating a healthier cereal every other day so I’m now having a portion of Shreddies four days a week. Here’s how it looks using the SMART goal system:

S = specific. Eat a wholegrain cereal every other day – a portion of Shreddies (or possibly Weetabix as an even better alternative according to someone in the know about healthy eating)

M = measurable. Does my food journal show that I’m doing this consistently?

A = achievable. Start small, do it every other day for the time being. Eating wholegrain cereal every day will make it a lot harder and I might start craving the Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and give up!

R = relevant. Does it fit with what I want in my life? Yes, I want to break the habit of eating a sugary cereal each day. I also want to tweak my diet to make it more healthy.

T = timely. Do the above consistently for two weeks to meet the initial goal and then increase to wholegrain cereal 5 days + a week.

Other goals include breaking the habit of having a packet of sweets every Friday / Saturday and finding alternative and less calorific desserts for during the week. I intend to work towards a couple of goals at a time so that I don’t feel that I’m denying myself too much.

Final words…

Although keeping a food and drink journal can be really helpful for improving your diet and eating more healthily, I wouldn’t recommend keeping records in the long term as it can be a time consuming habit to continue and you don’t want to feel like it’s a huge chore with no benefit. After 3 or 4 days, you should start to see patterns and be able to identify a few tweaks you could make to your diet to aid weight loss and ensure better balance between the different food groups and recommended consumption of foods in the different groups such as fruit and vegetables, protein and carbohydrates. For further information about your daily eating and drinking habits, you might want to consider logging things for a couple of weeks and setting yourself some mini goals to work towards.

I had a meeting this week with one of the weight management team ladies and she suggested some ideas for tweaking my diet to increase my success. She also mentioned that she didn’t advocate calorie counting or weighing food in the long term, instead she suggested educating myself about different foods and drinks using the traffic light system on packets and developing better understanding about portion size.

Nutritional information on the Shreddies packet

Let me know in the comments if keeping a food and drink log is something you’ve done in the past, considered doing or something you definitely want to try. If you’ve given it a go, I would love to hear about your experiences whether positive or negative.

In the end, I decided that I actually prefer using the My Fitness Pal app for recording as it’s much quicker than writing it all down. I’m still learning how to use all the features but so far I’ve managed to sync my Fitbit with the app and I’ve found that you can search for recipes you found online and retrieve the nutritional information (although you can’t include any changes you made to the ingredients.

Screenshot of my diary on My Fitness Pal

Thank you for reading,

Posted in goal setting, Health and Nutrition, lifestyle, Planning and journaling, self care, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: 5 main barriers to eating healthily and ideas to overcome them

As regular readers of my blog will know, I’m currently signed up to a weight management programme, where, for 12 weeks, I have free access to my local wellness centre including the gym and fitness classes and also receive tips on developing a more healthy lifestyle through exercise and diet. I was already quite active and have now upped my exercise levels significantly so that I’m burning more calories due to more steps and more active minutes each day. I’ve made some changes to what I eat but I need to continue to work on this so I thought that for today’s Monday Matters, I’d consider the barriers to eating healthily and ways in which they can be overcome.

Information overload

There’s so much information online, in magazines and in books about diets and ways to lose weight that it can seem really overwhelming and leave you feeling like you don’t know what to do for the best. There are a great number of ‘fad diets’ which promise super quick results in terms of weight loss with little scientific evidence to back up their claims. They’re also often very restrictive encouraging you to only eat at certain times or to dramatically cut down or cut out certain foods. Then there are adverts for diet pills and meal replacement drinks which make all sorts of claims about awesome results and feature images of slim, smiley, glowing women to go with the emotive and persuasive language used in the words.

Realistically, your goal should not be to lose weight at a rate of knots, but instead, should be about making gradual changes to your diet to make it balanced and more healthy. Here’s some ideas to help you:

  • Ignore ‘fad’ diets and read reliable information from reputable sources such as the government or the NHS (in the UK).
  • Check out a healthy eating plate like the one below to establish how much of each food group to should be eating.
  • Avoid listening to dietary advice from friends or family members, unless they’re a registered dietician or expert nutritionalist!
  • Remember that even diets which sound healthy, like vegetarian or vegan can still be highly calorific if certain choices are made e.g. eating lots of cheese and butter or consuming too much soya milk and other dairy alternatives.

There’s a wealth of accurate and reliable information provided by the (UK) government which includes a PDF version of the above and a comprehensive guide to eating well. Click here to go there now.

Lack of time

It takes time to develop a healthy lifestyle, including eating better and ensuring you have a balanced diet. Many people lead very busy lives and if improving your health isn’t currently one of your top priorities, you may feel that you haven’t got the time or energy to devote to making dietary changes.

The first thing I would suggest doing is spending about half an hour considering the different areas of your life and assessing which you’d like to focus on more. I use Hal Elrod’s Level 10 life sections to rate the different aspects of my life. The following aspects are given a score out of 10 (with 10 being near perfect and 1 being an area which requires lots of work):

  • Family and Friends
  • Personal growth and development
  • Spirituality
  • Finances
  • Career/business
  • Significant other/romance
  • Fun and recreation
  • Contribution/giving
  • Health/fitness
  • Physical environment (home/office)

If you figure you could make improvements in the area ‘health/fitness’ then it’s a good idea to identify some small changes you could make to your life to enable you to work on some related goals e.g. preparing a healthy packed lunch to take to work each day, cooking from scratch more often so you can enjoy the benefits of home cooked meals or creating a meal plan so that you can work on having a balanced diet with healthier snacks.

When most people say ‘I haven’t got time’, what they actually mean is that they don’t want to dedicate time to a particular venture, that they are actively making a choice to do something else or that the particular thing that they ‘haven’t got time for’ isn’t important enough to them or high enough up their agenda.

If you want to eat healthily but need help with motivating yourself to start changing your eating habits, you might want to do a little research on the benefits of a healthy diet and record your findings. I created a spread in my Bullet Journal as a great reminder of why healthy eating should be a priority.

A motivational page from my current bullet journal

A few time saving tips:

  • make twice the amount when cooking a favourite dish and save the rest to enjoy quick and easy leftovers later in the week
  • buy canned pulses so you don’t have to remember to soak them
  • have some pre-cooked packets of couscous, rice and grains to accompany your dishes
  • if you can afford it, buy pre-prepared veggies when you’re super busy
  • do a quick weekly meal plan over coffee on a Sunday morning and then make a list of groceries for the supermarket shop
  • have some frozen veggies in your freezer e.g. petit pois, spinach, green beans, mixed pre-chopped veg etc
  • batch cook and freeze soups and stews

Lack of confidence with cooking

Pre-prepared dishes or ‘ready meals’ as they are known, make it easy to enjoy a main meal but often these items are highly calorific and contain lots of sugar and salt. They’re also usually seriously lacking in vegetables which, as shown on the food plate above, should, along with fruit, make up a large portion of your daily food.

Home cooked meals might require a little more effort, but, you can find a range of simple, healthy recipes online or in cook books and if you specifically look for those which contain minimal or basic ingredients or label themselves as ‘one pot’ or ‘quick and easy’ then there’s no excuse to give it a go. You could also treat yourself to a few new tools and gadgets such as a set of cooks knives for speedy dicing of veggies, a food processor for chopping, mixing, grating and shredding, a blender for soups and smoothies or even a slow cooker for setting the dinner off at a simmer whilst you’re busy working so it’s ready to eat when you return home or get back to your kitchen.

My husband and I have found that each time we make a tasty and healthy dish we appreciate our efforts and the positive feelings it evokes prompt us to try more new recipes and boosts our confidence in the kitchen. We’re now more willing to try new ingredients and will give anything a go.

Feeling deprived

When you start working towards leading a more healthy lifestyle, you might give up some of the foods you like such as chocolate, crisps, salad dressings, sauces, ice cream and Friday night takeaways. Doing this may make you feel like you are being deprived of all of your favourites and can lead to lack of motivation to continue. Eating healthily doesn’t mean you have to stop eating everything you love. You just need to moderate the amount of sugary, fatty and highly calorific foods you have so that you eat then in small amounts and less often.

A popular way of achieving a healthy diet without feeling deprived is to apply the 80/20 mindset. This means that 80% of the time, you eat ‘clean’, choosing foods that are natural, whole and unprocessed e.g. fruit and vegetables, wholegrains such as wholemeal bread, brown rice, quinoa and wholemeal pasta, nuts and seeds, no-calorie beverages such as water, unsweetened tea. For the other 20% of the time, you can enjoy less-nutritious foods and treats. For example, on one day during the week, you might have an ice cream on a particularly hot afternoon or cake and coffee for a friend’s birthday etc. If you have several snacks a day over the period of a week, 11 or 12 of them would be healthy choices such as fruit, unflavoured nuts or low fat cheese on a wholewheat cracker, and 2 or 3 times you could enjoy a favourite treat such as a cookie or a small amount of chocolate.

Difficulty changing unhealthy or unhelpful eating habits and beliefs

Changing your eating habits to make them more healthy can be incredibly difficult, especially when many of them were established a long time ago, sometimes as far back as childhood. Some examples of unhelpful habits include:

  • eating whilst watching tv / YouTube videos etc (eating whilst performing other tasks)
  • piling your plate high with food at the buffet table (eyes bigger than your belly anyone?) because it all looks good / is free etc
  • eating a dessert even if you’re already full
  • emotional eating e.g. when bored, agitated, angry, stressed, upset etc. as a form of comfort
  • making your portion size the same as your partner who may have a much higher recommended daily calorie intake
  • believing that you have to eat everything on your plate, otherwise it’s wasteful
  • eating late at night, especially snacking just before bed
  • giving in to sugar cravings
  • believing you are hungry when really you’re actually thirsty
  • skipping breakfast
  • eating far too quickly

Even if you’ve had the same eating habits for years, it is possible to make improvements. I would suggest that the first step is to take time for some reflection. Consider what you good habits are e.g. always ensuring you get your 5 a day and your not so wonderful habits e.g. having a highly calorific dessert each evening after your main meal. If you’re not exactly sure what your habits are, try keeping a food diary, recording everything you eat and drink throughout one week. Also, think about what triggers your unhealthy eating such as a stressful day, a mid-afternoon energy slump etc.

Following your reflection and analysis, give yourself a congratulatory pat on the back for your healthy habits and then choose one of your bad habits to replace. So, for example, you might choose to focus on ‘eating too quickly’ and work on a plan to replace this with eating slowly and mindfully. Just as a bad habit does not evolve overnight, new and improved habits take time to develop too. But if you work on cementing one healthy habit at a time and continually reflect on how things are going, you can get there as long as a) you’re patient with yourself and take it one day at a time and b) you remember that there may be slip ups along the way and this does not mean that you’ve failed and should give up.

Tackling negative core beliefs about food and eating e.g. once I start eating, I can’t stop, I need to eat to make myself feel better, food is just fuel etc. can be extremely difficult. In this case, it is usually best to seek the help and advice of a trained professional such a dietician or a CBT therapist. These can be accessed via your GP.

Final words…

I hope you have enjoyed reading today’s blog post and it has helped to explain some of the main barriers to eating healthily. If you are planning on making changes to your diet, it’s best to make small changes rather than doing anything drastic. It might also be a good idea to do a little journalling and reflection on the process, for example, recording any improvements you notice such as clearer skin, better sleep and feeling more attentive when working etc. You could also reward your progress by giving yourself little treats (non-foodie ones preferably!) such as a bath bomb, a gorgeously scented hand cream, new stationery or a potted plant for your room.

Posted in depression management, Health and Nutrition, mental health, self care, wellbeing

Monday Matters: Why Exercise is Good for your Mental Health

We all know exercise is important for maintaining physical health but working out is also extremely beneficial for your mental health. As someone who regularly struggles with depression, I have a really good understanding of how important exercise is to help me manage my symptoms. In today’s Monday Matters, I thought I would discuss some of the reasons why regular exercise is so great for your mental wellbeing.

Boosts your mood

An energetic workout such as a brisk walk, a dance class or cardio at the gym releases endorphins AKA the feel good hormones into the body. These chemicals help to boost your happiness levels and can be great for alleviating anxiety and depression and any physical aches and pains you might have. Exercise also gives us something positive to focus on and can be a useful distraction from negative and anxious thoughts during periods of difficulty.

Increases energy levels

You might think that exercise will wear you out and make you feel tired, but the reverse is actually true. According to my research, moderate exercise helps to increase the level of mitochondria cells, which are directly responsible for producing energy. Also, a good workout boosts the circulation of oxygen in your body which makes you feel energised. Although you may feel worn out at the end of your exercise session, a few hours later, your energy levels should have picked back up, leaving you refreshed and invigorated for the rest of the day.

Fatigue is a common symptom of depression so by getting some exercise each day, even if it’s just a short walk or ten minutes of housework, you can combat the constant feeling of tiredness.

Promotes better quality sleep

As well as increasing your energy levels, exercise also helps to improve the quality of your sleep. You should find that you fall asleep more quickly and get more minutes of deep sleep, leaving you feeling refresh in the morning. It should be noted, however that you should avoid exercising for at least a couple of hours before bed as the production of those endorphins I mentioned earlier will leave you feeling buzzing, unable to switch off and struggling to sleep.

Improves self esteem

Self esteem is all about our perception of ourselves and how much value we place on our personal characteristics and qualities. Low self esteem can have a negative impact on our emotional wellbeing causing feelings of worthlessness and lack of self love. Exercise has been shown to have a really positive impact on our self esteem. As well as helping to put us in a more positive frame of mind which can make us feel better about ourselves, regular exercise can also boost our self esteem by:

  • improving our body image
  • helping us to feel more physically competent as we become stronger and more flexible
  • giving us a huge sense of achievement as we create new habits and stick to them
  • encouraging you to build friendships with others who are on a similar fitness journey or enjoy the same kinds of exercise
  • helping us to feel more healthy as we observe the effects on our body and mind

Can combat social withdrawal and isolation

Mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia can make us feel very lonely and cause us to withdraw from social situations such as talking and meeting with friends, going shopping, family get togethers etc. Even if you are struggling a little at the moment and don’t particularly feel like socialising, pushing yourself to take a walk in your local park where others are exercising or going to the gym when it is relatively quiet can help you feel a part of the community. Joining a class with other likeminded individuals can help combat feelings of isolation. I’ve attended a few yoga classes recently and although I felt really nervous about going, I met some really lovely people and felt super proud of myself for making conversation both with class attendees and the instructors.

Improves cognitive function

Cardio workouts i.e. those which raise our heart rate and get us sweating help to improve the function of the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain which processes and retrieves different kinds of memories. Moderate-intensity exercise can also boost other aspects of cognitive processing including thinking, problem solving, attention, language and learning. This can help us feel better about ourselves and increase our self confidence. Studies have also shown that regular exercise can also help to combat the cognitive decline associated with ageing.

Stress busting

Regular aerobic exercise has been found to be really effective at reducing stress levels. The production of endorphins in the brain can decrease tension, elevate your mood and generally make you feel good. Also, exercise that involves deep breathing, such as yoga and Pilates, can help you to relax by producing calming energy.

Feeling the benefits of being fully present

Certain types of exercise encourage you to be mindful by paying attention to the quality of your movements or holding poses. Yoga and Pilates may not get your pulse racing and endorphins flowing, but, as well as being great for improving strength, muscle tone and flexibility, the level of concentration required takes the focus away from your low mood, stresses or worries about your current circumstances and negative self talk associated with anxiety or depression. As one of my yoga teachers once said, you’re enjoying the benefits of a mini mind break or a mental holiday.

Ways to get active every day

There are so many great ways to increase the amount of physical activity you do each week. In order to stay motivated, it’s best if you choose things you enjoy and which easily fit into your daily life. Here’s some suggestions:

  • Be active around the house and in the garden by doing moderate exercise such as washing the car, cleaning the windows, doing some digging, mowing the lawn or vacuuming every room.
  • Arrange a fun weekly class to attend with a family member or friend. Popular choices include clubbercise, spinning (indoor cycling, often done to loud dance music), bums and tums and body pump.
  • Enjoy a weekend woodland walk, immersing yourself in the environment and forgetting about life’s stresses and strains.
  • Dust off your bike and head to a country park for a spot of cycling. Safer than riding on the roads or pavements and the paths often include some inclines to really work your legs!
  • If you’ve just got 10 or 20 minutes, try an online workout. There are plenty of short fitness videos on YouTube and you can choose which part of your body you want to work on such as legs, glutes, arms or tummy.
  • Try Nordic walking which involves using a pair of walking poles. Not only do your legs get a good workout, you will also be using your arms and engaging your core.
  • Join your local gym and ask a personal trainer to help you create a workout to suit your current fitness levels and target specific parts of your body you’d like to tone.
  • Put some fast tempo music on whilst you do a spot of dusting and dance your way around the furniture and various rooms.
  • Get off the train or bus a stop early and walk the rest of the way.
  • Search for local walks and hikes online and and pick one out each weekend to go on with your partner or a friend.
  • If you have kids or grandkids, encourage them to be active and spend time as a family doing something sporty such as having a kick about, taking some netball or basketball shots, riding a bike, playing frisbee or having a game of tennis in a nearby park. You could even pack a nutritious picnic for when you’re done!
  • Walk or cycle instead of taking the car.
  • Go for a swim – it’s a great full body workout, low impact and easy on your joints. Or, if you like being in the pool, but, like me, you’re not so good at swimming, try an aqua aerobics class.

N.B. Please bear in mind that the above are examples of ways in which you might get yourself moving and begin to enjoy the many benefits of exercise. I am in no way an expert on exercise and it’s best to consult with your doctor prior to beginning any exercise programme or upping your physical activity levels, especially if you have not exercised for some time or if you have a particular medical condition or concerns.

Final words…

Regular exercise can be quite costly if you join a gym and attend classes regularly. However, there are many inexpensive or free exercise options if you are on a tight budget. I’m currently signed up to a programme which gives me free access to my local gym and wellness centre for 12 weeks and I’m making the most of it by regularly working out at the gym and also trying out some of the classes which are available.

It might be a good idea to do some research online to see if there are any special deals or programmes on offer in your local community, Or, you could find out if there’s a recovery college nearby which might have some physical activity based courses to become involved in to help you manage mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety. Walking is also a free or inexpensive way of getting moving and if you are hoping to socialise with others, many towns and cities have local walking groups available to people of all levels of fitness.