By EatingWell Editors
If you find yourself feeling irritable or sluggish, you may need to tune up your diet. How you eat, and when, can make a huge impact on how you feel. To keep your moods on an even keel and your energy levels up, follow these tips from the nutrition experts at EatingWell.
Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. For a well-rounded breakfast that will power up your day, be sure to include a serving or two of whole-grains, fruit (whole fruit, rather than juice, if possible) and a high-protein food, such as low-fat yogurt or cheese or a little lean meat. The carbohydrates will kick-start your metabolism and give your brain fuel to function all morning long, and the protein will help you stay satisfied until lunchtime rolls around.
Because of our fast-paced busy lives, we often don’t find time to eat regular meals. But this catches up with us in several ways. Do you hit a wall around 3:00 in the afternoon and then remember that you’d skipped lunch? Try to make a habit of eating every four to five hours. This will provide your body with a constant source of fuel and will help prevent those hunger pangs that leave you feeling tired, cranky and ready to gobble down anything in sight. By eating regular meals you’re also less likely to make poor food choices that leave you feeling crummy afterwards.
Be sure your meals include some lean high-protein foods with plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Such foods take longer to digest, keep you satisfied longer and are more likely to keep you feeling energized and productive. Overall, protein should make up 15 percent of your calories, fat should make up 30 percent or less and grains about 55 percent.
It’s especially important to get some protein at lunch to avoid that afternoon slump since protein contains amino acids, such as tyrosine, the building block for alertness-boosting neurotransmitters (brain chemicals that relay signals between nerve cells).
Include plenty of high-quality carbohydrates, such as vegetables, fruit, beans, brown rice and whole-grain bread or pasta. Be sure to choose wisely, especially if you’re running on overdrive: stress often leads to a craving for carbohydrates because they boost serotonin, which has a calming effect. When you’re in that state it’s easy to succumb to chips, cookies, pretzels or other highly refined carbohydrate snacks.
If you’re craving carbs, reach for so-called “good carbs” like whole grains and fruits, which give you a nutritional boost in the bargain. Good snacks to have on hand are whole-grain granola bars, fresh or dried fruits and whole-grain crackers. Choosing the right carbohydrates can help increase the nutritional content of your meals and snacks.
A growing body of research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish can help alleviate the symptoms of some mental disorders. In one study, researchers found that participants who had lower blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were more likely to report mild or moderate symptoms of depression. While more research is needed to determine whether omega-3s play a role in improving moods, we do know they are healthy for the heart—and that in itself should be enough to give your mood a lift. Foods rich in omega-3 fats include oily fish (salmon, mackerel and sardines), ground flaxseeds, canola oil, walnuts and omega-3-fortified eggs.
Studies have shown that low blood levels of two B vitamins—folate and vitamin B12—are sometimes related to depression. While researchers still don’t fully understand why, some believe that these vitamins are used to make a key neurotransmitter, serotonin, which helps elevate moods. Foods rich in folate include whole-grain breakfast cereals, lentils, black-eyed peas, soybeans, oatmeal, dark leafy greens, beets, broccoli, sunflower seeds, wheat germ and oranges. Foods rich in vitamin B12 include shellfish (clams, oysters, crab), wild salmon (fresh or canned), fortified whole-grain breakfast cereal, lean beef, cottage cheese, low-fat yogurt, milk and eggs. Make sure you dig into these tasty foods regularly.
To stay healthy and feel your best, you need plenty of water throughout the day. Exactly how much water or fluids you need depends on many things, such as your body size, activity level and even the weather and humidity. But for most healthy people, 2½ to 3½ quarts of fluid per day is enough. (While that sounds like a lot of drinking, it also includes fluids that naturally occur in the foods we eat.)
Yet surveys indicate that many people are chronically mildly dehydrated. They either don’t drink enough fluid throughout the day or only drink when they are thirsty. Thirst is actually not the best guide for fluid intake because you only feel thirsty after you’ve lost 1 to 2 percent of your body weight in water. At that point you can already be experiencing some of the symptoms of dehydration—impatience, difficulty concentrating and impaired physiological performance and response.
A good rule of thumb is to try to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day to be adequately hydrated. Be aware that because they are diuretics, caffeinated and alcoholic beverages can contribute to dehydration. So follow them up with a chaser of water! Eating lots of fruits and vegetables will also boost your fluid intake because they contain substantial amounts of water.
Let’s say your stomach isn’t rumbling, and you just had lunch an hour ago. Yet you find yourself craving food—especially a specific food like a candy bar or a cookie. If this sounds like you, it’s time to evaluate whether you are an emotional eater.
Many people turn to food to suppress negative emotions, such as stress, anger, boredom, sadness or anxiety. Others use food to reward themselves. Whatever the reason, it’s important to recognize if you’re eating because you’re hungry or because of some emotional need. Knowing why you’re eating is the first step in gaining control over your eating habits. Eating for emotional reasons can lead to weight gain and poor nutrition so it’s important to understand what is motivating your food choices.
Once you’ve identified the emotional issues that trigger your eating, you can focus on finding more appropriate, nonfood ways to manage them. Try deep breathing or meditation, calling a friend or going for a brisk walk. “The more you practice these alternative behaviors, the more automatic they become,” notes Elena Ramirez, Ph.D., co-founder of the Vermont Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in South Burlington, Vermont. Eventually, reaching for a bag of chips can stop being the default reaction to stress.
Research shows that regular physical activity may help reduce stress and depression. And even short bouts of exercise can give you a boost. The reasons are not clear but it may be that exercise promotes the release of feel-good endorphins in the brain. Shoot for at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, which you can break up into smaller intervals if that’s more convenient. Take a 15-minute walk at lunch and another when you get home from work, and you’ve met your goal.
Your mood is more manageable and your body can more effectively fight stress when you’re well rested. Recent research has shown that lack of sleep can also lead to potentially serious health problems. Sleep deprivation causes the body to continuously release cortisol, a stress hormone, into the bloodstream. High levels of this hormone can work against you in several ways.
Cortisol stimulates a rise in blood glucose, which prompts the body to release more insulin. Over time, the increased production of insulin may lead to insulin resistance, a condition in which the body’s cells become less and less responsive to the effects of insulin—and, in some cases, the condition can progress to type 2 diabetes. You might also get sick more easily: high levels of circulating cortisol suppress the immune system, making you more vulnerable to infections.
To get a full night's sleep, try going to bed earlier than you usually do. Engage in ritual relaxing activities before bed, such as reading a book. Don't take work-related reading material to bed with you. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day so you can program a sleep schedule into your body's biological clock. Avoid alcohol in the late evening; it disrupts your sleep cycle. See Dr. Rachel Johnson's analysis of 6 common ways to manage sleep problems.