When we’re feeling hungry and need something to eat, we might not always stop to think about what we’re putting into our bodies. In reality, though, the food we consume can have a significant impact on our health. Food is the fuel our bodies use to power their many processes, so it only makes sense that higher-quality fuel helps them run more efficiently.
Most people know that diet and nutrition play a role in physical health. It has long been known that poor eating and exercise habits can lead to chronic health disorders like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and poor bone health. However, as nutritionists and health professionals gain a deeper understanding of the brain, they’re discovering that what we eat can also affect our mental health.
On the one hand, if a person develops physical health problems due to poor nutrition, they may experience feelings of distress and anxiety about the state of their health. On the other hand, scientific research suggests that certain diets are associated with fewer mental health problems. Specifically, diets that are high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains and seafood have been associated with reduced risk for depression and cognitive impairment.
The question is: what should (and shouldn’t) we eat to get the best nutrition, and how can we change our eating behaviors to meet these needs? We spoke with Cummins therapist Jamie Selby and sports dietitian Kaitie Delgado of Hendricks Regional Health to find out.
What to Eat and What to Avoid
Proper nutrition is all about eating enough of the things that are good for you and less of the things that aren’t so good for you. In general, this means eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, enough whole grains and protein for your individual needs, and limiting consumption of fats and sugars. The USDA’s MyPlate program provides useful nutritional guidelines on the types and amounts of food you should be eating at each meal.
To ensure that they’re getting all of their essential nutrients, dietitian Kaitie Delgado often instructs patients to eat foods of many different colors. “I say, ‘Eat the rainbow.’ Make sure you’re getting in lots of bold colors. The biggest thing I try to encourage is that at least twice a month, maybe every other week, you try something that you’ve never had before. I want you to go to that fresh produce section and pick out something that’s bold and bright. I want people to say, ‘You know, I haven’t had a dark purple vegetable in a long time. Have you ever had an eggplant?’ And then I can help them with that,” Delgado says.
Many nutritional problems can be traced to excessive consumption of processed foods. These are foods that are prepared and packaged for consumers, such as frozen meals, canned goods and snack foods. As compared to “whole” or unprocessed foods, processed foods typically contain fewer nutrients and more additives like fat, sugar, salt and preservatives, and they should therefore be avoided as much as possible.
Unfortunately, not everyone has access to affordable whole foods, which makes it much harder to maintain a healthy diet. This is especially true for people who have low income or live in rural areas, as Cummins therapist Jamie Selby explains:
“In rural Indiana, we’re having an influx of discount stores that are taking out the ‘mom and pop’ grocery stores in some of the towns. They’re quick, they’re convenient, you can walk over to them, but the food you’re getting there is mostly processed. I work with some people who don’t have jobs, who are running to the gas station and getting a pack of cigarettes, a Red Bull, and a bag of chips or a pizza with processed and cured meats. And they have high blood pressure because of their diet, which plays into their anxiety. It’s all connected.”
The Importance of Cooking
One of the easiest ways to improve our nutritional intake is to cook more. Cooking helps us consume more whole and unprocessed foods, and it also allows us to control the amount of fat, sugar and salt that ends up in our meals.
However, some people don’t like to cook or feel that they don’t have enough time for it. According to Delgado, this isn’t as big an issue as it might seem. “That population fits best with me, because I don’t enjoy cooking. But it’s something I have to do because I know how important it is,” she says. “My cooking is like, ‘I know where these ingredients are in the grocery store, it’s going to take less than 15 minutes to get them, and it will only take 10 minutes to cook.’ I like to roast things. You can just pop it in the oven and make it really easy.”
If you still have trouble creating a cooking routine, you can always start small. Try cooking dinner two or three nights a week instead of ordering out or eating a prepared meal. As you grow more accustomed to cooking, you can then work on increasing the number of home-cooked meals you eat. You can even make cooking an opportunity for family bonding by having everyone in your home assist with meal preparation. Selby is a strong supporter of this method because of the additional benefits it can provide for children, as she explains:
“The lack of family dinners that we have today is a huge problem for emotional wellness and development in children. Studies show we need to sit down and have that meal as a family. My grandmother is American Indian, and when I was a child, we would make tamales with her at Christmas. I was not only getting quality time with my grandmother and learning to cook, but I was also getting a course on how her generation thought about food and how it was important to them. Those are the other life lessons you learn in the kitchen.”