At the moment, it feels like we’re all trying to stay positive and focussed on the road ahead. As a specialist dietitian on a stroke unit, I’m adjusting to the changes. During this uncertainty, I’ve found all the wins we can get help keep spirits up, and keep the ward team, our patients and our departments moving forward. Linking an isolated individual with welcomed support from the Red Cross, facilitating a video call for a patient with their family, and hearing of the generous donations to keyworkers of meals from surplus food have stood out so far.
However, 50% of us, as UK healthcare workers, have reported a deterioration in our mental health at this time. We all know that looking after ourselves is just as important as looking after our patients, and we all have our own ways of dealing with our emotions and stresses - whether it’s a bike ride or run, our favourite music or a good night’s sleep. The WHO identifies eating healthily and sufficiently as a key part of looking after ourselves. Have you wondered how your diet could help you stay mentally strong?
This got me thinking about how we can optimise our diets to support our overall mood, at home and at work. So here are 5 tips below:
Eat and drink regularly Have you ever felt that “hanger” is getting the better of you? A regular meal pattern will help flatten peaks and troughs in blood sugar levels. Additionally, if your meal or snack includes carbohydrates, include those that release energy more slowly i.e. have a lower glycaemic index (GI). These include oats, basmati rice, pasta, couscous, granary or rye bread, pulses and most fruits and vegetables. If you aren’t able to have a typical lunch break, even a snack from home (you’ll thank your pre-prepared self) or the hospital shop at your usual lunchtime will pay off later in the day.
Keep hydrated Studies have shown that dehydration can affect our concentration and performance as well as giving physical symptoms. Any fluid has a net hydrating effect (except alcohol!) so choose what suits you - water being a fantastic choice, sweet drinks less so. Caffeinated drinks can clearly affect sleep so consider the quantity and timings that you can tolerate.
Choose foods from all food groups Eating a variety of foods decreases the risk of micronutrient deficiencies, which could negatively affect mood and energy levels. Aiming for a variety of colours on your plate is one starting point: more NHS rainbow than tones of magnolia. The major food groups are: fruits and vegetables, protein, carbohydrates. Added to this are dairy foods/fortified alternatives and healthy oils.
Include food sources of specific nutrients The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) lays out rules to govern health claims related to foods and nutrients, and claims can be made in relation to the nutrients below. Sources of the nutrients can be found here, however a short cut is that all can be obtained through following #3 above.
*Nutrients and their health claims
Iron, selenium and zinc: contribute to normal cognitive function
Carbohydrates and DHA*(an omega 3 fatty acid): contribute to normal brain function
Iron, magnesium, vitamin C, B vitamins e.g. B2, B3, pantothenic acid, B6, B12, folate: contribute to a reduction of tiredness and fatigue
*If you are pregnant, please see dietary information specific to you at this time.
As inspiration, some snack ideas to provide a range of the nutrients above could include: yogurts/dairy alternatives, nuts and dried fruit, overnight oats, dried fruit, home-popped popcorn, dried fruit and nut bar, oat crackers with or without hummus, reduced fat soft cheese, avocado, nut butter.
The jury is still out on whether specific nutrients can affect our mood. For example tryptophan as a precursor of serotonin is frequently credited with mood maintaining or boosting properties, although we do not yet have enough evidence to support this.
What about chocolate?... Sometimes, only a certain food/drink will cut it. The items themselves usually won’t specifically affect our mood, but the connotations, associations and personal significance definitely can. Using your favourite mug, choosing a favourite snack from your university or childhood days, or maintaining your morning tea/coffee ritual can affect mood more than we realise. As for chocolate… we can each decide whether it’s the only pick me up that will tick all the boxes, or whether on this occasion a different snack or activity will give us the lift we need.
If you’d like more information, you may find these resources useful:
British Dietetic Association (BDA): https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/food-facts-food-and-mood.html
NHS Choices: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/
Ref: (IPPR/YouGov, 2020)
Cara is a specialist stroke dietitian at a central London teaching hospital. Through almost 10 years of clinical experience, she has supported the nutritional needs of individuals in acute illness as well as over the longer term for cardiovascular and gut health. Prior to training as a dietitian, Cara supported the NHS as a performance improvement consultant at Pricewaterhouse Coopers. She is passionate about reducing food waste, and coordinates a food save scheme at London’s Borough Market (Plan Zheroes).Completing her next 5km run is her current goal.