Sustenance. Energy. Enjoyment.

Is this something you agree with or have an opinion on? I’m sure if you’re reading the above line you must have some opinions on food/diet/nutrition. We all have opinions and that’s what keeps us interesting. When it comes to opinions on food it’s important to realise that sometimes it is just that; opinions or other people’s opinions! Opinions are not facts.

The World Health Organisation, Safefood, Department of Health, Dietitians and many more use the most up-to-date public health and scientific research on food, health and disease which they translate into practical guidance to enable people to make appropriate lifestyle and food choices. They aim to provide independent scientific advice unlike some out there who are flogging cookbooks, special diets, protein bars, detox teas and my personal favourite – gluten free shampoo; never heard of anyone being diagnosed with coeliac disease in their hair…

Sometimes opinions on food versus the science on food can clash. Much dietary advice we see online focuses only on your appearance rather than on health benefits.

The reality is that the brain needs to be fuelled by complex carbohydrates –wholegrains bread, rice and pasta – which are broken down into glucose. Our brains depend on glucose and there’s good evidence that having a steady flow of it to the brain is important for optimal mental functioning.

The great carb monster is a question I get asked regularly or get opinions on; ‘Carbs are fattening’, ‘bread is fattening’, ‘I gave up carbs and lost weight’, ‘I feel better without them’, ‘my bloating is gone’.

Our brains prefer to run on glucose.

Unfortunately, our brains cannot store much glucose.

Therefore, we need a regular supply of carbohydrates to ensure our brain runs properly.

If you get up every day and eat the same food at the same time in mostly the same place for a period of time then its habit forming and as humans we are creatures of habit.

This single most important thing you can do is regular eating to provide energy throughout the day. This helps to reduce the risk of extreme hunger and drive to eat high fat/sugar food.

Everything we read about online or see on social media tends to be geared toward weight loss/look better/drop a dress size/look like a Kardashian?”

Do you need to change your dietary pattern? What changes could you make?

What about food doing more than that? What about food helping your mental health? What about food helping your physical health? We know, or you might know that the Mediterranean diet protects against cardiac events. The same dietary and physical activity recommendations that are made to prevent and treat common physical diseases are also relevant for mental health.

In mental health, the first study of a high-quality standard looking at a dietary improvement program for the treatment of major depressive episodes was undertaken in recent years. The study found that dietary changes may provide an effective and accessible treatment strategy for the management of this highly prevalent mental disorder, the benefits of which could extend to the management of common co-morbidities.

Having a healthy relationship with all foods is a message the general public can benefit from. That means eating more on some days than others, eating in a social manner, having enough to eat that you are satisfied.

Guidelines on healthy eating are just that; guidelines. What we eat day-to-day or week-to-week can be different.

Telling people what to do, how they should do it or continually emphasising the importance of changing a specific behaviour can make someone feel disheartened and patronised rather than empowered to make changes.

Think about what changes you could make or implement at home.

The modern diet and the many influences we all see via the media, online etc can promote orthorexia or a ‘fixation on righteous eating’ – when healthy eating guidelines are taken to extremes, and the thinking that the correct foods will ‘cleanse’ the body.

This “healthy” eating may not be as beneficial as they presumed. Nutritional concerns might include cutting out food groups e.g. dairy (calcium and phosphate) or carbohydrates, avoidance of fats, inadequate protein can lead to muscle loss & unnecessary self- imposed dietary restrictions e.g. gluten free or lactose free.

Normal eating is flexible to include a wide variety of foods.

The Food Pyramid

The Food Pyramid

The Food Pyramid is designed to make healthy eating easier.
In a nutshell, healthy eating involves eating regular meals of:

  • plenty of vegetables, salad and fruit
  • a serving of wholemeal cereals and breads, potatoes, pasta and rice at every meal – wholegrain or brown varieties wherever possible
  • some milk, yoghurt and cheese or fortified alternatives
  • some meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans and nuts
  • a very small amount of fats, spreads and oils

    Your brain needs fats to keep it working well. So rather than avoiding all fats, it’s important to eat the right ones. Healthy fats are found in: oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel), poultry, nuts (especially walnuts and almonds), olive and sunflower oils, seeds (such as sunflower and pumpkin).

  • and a very small amount or no foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt. Most people consume snacks high in fat, sugar and salt and sugar sweetened drinks up to 6 times a day (Healthy Ireland Survey 2016). There are no recommended servings for Top Shelf foods and drinks because they are not needed for good health.

The most up to date guidance advises us to limit chips and takeaway food as much as possible – maximum once a month. This may seem harsh given the amount of takeaway we now consume. But think about making homemade over chips at home, or air fried chips or healthier non-fried alternative. If you are having frequent takeaways are healthier options available or can you share with somebody?

Food isn’t a simple or easy concept to understand and science is advancing all the time.

The World Health Organisation is looking at new technologies to tackle digital marketing of alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy foods aimed at children and adolescents. New studies are suggesting consumption of full fat dairy is linked to lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease. We update as we go with the best possible evidence that it may help people remain both physically and mentally well.

When you need food and nutrition information based on fact or need to know how a healthy diet improves health and fights disease—rely on qualified professionals in the field.
Want to read more? I’ve included some links below.

The International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research was established to support scientifically rigorous research into nutritional approaches to the prevention and treatment of mental disorders and their comorbidities.

Food and Mood

Food Fact Sheet: is there a connection between feeling fine and the foods we have eaten?
The Food and Mood Centre is committed to conducting high quality research that helps us to learn about how we might reduce risk, prevent, or even treat mental disorders through diet and nutrition.
Eating a balanced diet (NHS)

Eleanor Sutton, Senior Mental Health Dietitian at St Patrick’s Mental Health Service

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