“The amount and quality of nutrients you take in over time can impact the body’s neural circuits that control emotion, motivation, and mood” (Stress, 2015). As someone who used to eat like actual crap in high school, I am walking proof that consuming food thoughtfully and strategically can change your life.
When I began shifting to a healthier diet, it was purely for physical purposes. I was following several fitness influencers who were constantly talking about the benefits of “clean eating”, which focuses on wholesome ingredients (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats) and limiting pre-packaged foods and refined sugars. I immediately hopped on the bandwagon, determined to look like the beautiful fitness gurus dominating Instagram.
I’m actually laughing as I write this because of how naive I used to be. Being bikini body ready was my priority at the time, but the most dramatic changes I experienced were internal; nobody but me truly understood how much had changed. Not only was I less bloated and lethargic, but my energy, immune system and metabolism all noticeably improved. I even began craving healthy foods over sugary treats. But the most remarkable change for me was my mental and emotional state. My stress levels were lower than I had experienced in years, even as I was moving off to college, and my vibrant energy and excitement to take on each day was liberating.
When you consume wholesome nutritious ingredients like oats, seeds and a variety of vegetables, it enhances the health and diversity of your gut flora (the microbes in human digestive tracts) which will positively affect your overall mood and mental wellbeing (Psychosomatic Medicine, 2017). Likewise, eating highly processed foods filled with chemicals, emulsifiers and refined sugars will probably make you feel like crap.
Now, instead of grabbing a bag of Cheetos for a mid-afternoon snack, I gravitate toward wholesome foods like carrots and hummus or a rice cake with peanut butter; something that gives me sustained energy rather than a quick fix and a sugar crash later. My general rule of thumb is if I can’t list out the individual ingredients in something, I don’t eat it. Just keep it simple.
For example, here are the ingredients in Betty Crocker’s blueberry muffin mix:
I bet you’ve never even heard of half those names… and the ones you do know don’t even sound very appetizing. On the other hand, here is my simple blueberry muffin recipe that I make at least every month:
Spot the difference? It’s all about simplicity!
My performance in the classroom, at work and in the gym skyrockets when I nourish my body correctly, and in conjunction with regular exercise, my stamina and motivation go through the roof. It wasn’t until I became more mindful of what I consumed that I saw these changes, and it has become a lifestyle that will last my entire life. That’s why I wanted to share all of this with you!
Here are some practical tips that I am religious about on a daily basis. Give them a try:
- Cook at home as much as possible. Not only will this significantly reduce the cost of food, but your meals are more likely to be healthier and less calorically dense than if you ate at a restaurant (Science Daily, 2017).
- If you don’t recognize an ingredient in something, avoid eating it. While I try to stick to simple unprocessed products, I will sometimes buy packaged food as long as I can pronounce each and every item on the ingredients list. This way, I know exactly what I’m putting into my body.
- Make your own healthy snacks. Let’s be honest. Pre-packaged snacks are convenient, especially on the go. So to avoid the tempting bag of chips when my stomach starts growling, I always make sure I have healthy homemade treats ready to go. Energy balls are my favorite portable snack; I simply combine oats, peanut butter, chia seeds, honey and sometimes protein powder into a bunch of deliciously convenient balls that I can eat at home or throw in my bag. If that’s too complicated, just throw some almonds and dried fruit in a reusable baggie. Pack a few in advance so they are grab and go. No excuses there!
- Create balanced dishes. I try to make sure each of my meals contain a protein, healthy fat, low-glycemic carbohydrate (sweet potato, rice, oats) and a vegetable source. This keeps me satisfied and full of nutrient-dense foods that my body can use effectively.
- Research health benefits. Eating a diet filled with clean ingredients is likely to improve your energy and lower stress levels, but there are specific foods that have specific “stress-fighting” properties. Once you’ve become comfortable eating unprocessed foods in general, I would recommend implementing specific foods into your diet based on their individual health benefits. You’ll be surprised at the power of certain foods!
Like I always say, YOU are in charge of the trajectory of your life. If you want to become the best version of yourself, taking care of your body’s physiological needs should be at the top of your priorities. Set the foundation for your success with a nutrient-dense diet and a happy gut. Your body and mind will thank you.
For more information on this topic, here are several articles/ podcasts that I’ve found particularly helpful:
“The Ten Best Foods to Help Fight Stress” (Everyday Health)
“Psychobiotics: Using Gut Bacteria to Treat Mental Illness” (Experience Life)
“Eat Your Way to Better Energy with James Collins” (Feel Better Live More podcast)