Nutrition and mental health: 6 tips to create a healthy mind as a university student

 

I love it when we get student posts for the blog! This one is from Serena Hodge, a Master of Nutrition and Dietetics student on the topic of nutrition and mental health. Support Serena by reading and commenting 🙂


Many people are quick to associate eating healthy with weight loss and aesthetic goals, while only few of us understand the positive impact healthy eating can have on our mental health.

According to Firth et al. (2019), healthy eating has been shown to have significant positive effects on the symptoms of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Further, a recent study conducted by Jacka et al. (2017) found that making healthy changes to the diet of people experiencing major depressive episodes was beneficial in significantly reducing depressive symptoms.

In addition to having positive outcomes on depression and anxiety, Headspace (2020) says that eating well is also known to be useful in helping to:

  • Improve concentration throughout the day
  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Increase energy levels
  • Reduce cravings for foods high in sugar, fat and salt

So, the bad news: eating an unhealthy diet, coupled with the stress that comes along with being at university, can contribute to leaving you in a less than desirable mental state.

The good news? Eating healthy is a decision that you have the power to make to improve your health, and is something you can get started on today!

Eating well is a form of self-care. When you begin to prioritise making healthy choices around the food that you are choosing to put into your body, you are showing that you want to look after yourself. In my experience, I have found that eating healthy is something that not only improves how my body feels, but also my inner-world and sense of self-confidence.

When you think about it, it’s pretty cool that what you eat can have an impact on the holistic picture of your health. Keeping this in mind, I encourage you to experiment with the following six tips I have created on how to make a few simple and healthy changes to your diet and approach to eating.

 

  1. Start with the basics.

There are particular foods have been associated with creating a healthy mind. This include fresh fruit and vegetables, fibre-rich foods (think wholegrains, beans, chickpeas, lentils and nuts), fermented foods (such as unsweetened yoghurt), olive oil and fish (Headspace, 2018). Aiming to incorporate these foods in your everyday meals and snacks will help to form the basis of a diet that is healthy for your mind.

 

  1. Aim for small and gradual change.

You may be reading this and feeling overwhelmed or unsure of where to start with creating a healthy diet. Rest assured; it doesn’t have to be this way! Rather than changing everything you eat all at once, focus on making small and gradual changes one at a time. This could be as simple as adding some extra vegetables in your pasta this week, or choosing fruit as a morning snack. Maybe you will decide to have a salad as a side instead of fries. Start with something that feels achievable for you, and slowly work up from there!

 

  1. Keep it simple.

Living on a budget while you are at university can mean that you have limited funds to spend on food. Know that choosing to make healthy choices doesn’t mean you need to become a super foodie who eats expensive quinoa salads and acai bowls to reap the benefits. Basic healthy foods such as wholegrain breads and cereals, seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables, and canned fish are all affordable ingredients that can form the basis of a many simple and healthy meals.

 

  1. Begin experimenting in the kitchen.

Life at university can leave you with little spare time to prepare meals. This can often lead to a reliance of takeaway or ready-made meals. Not only are these options usually more expensive, they are also often higher in unhealthy fats, salt and sugar; all of which are less healthy for your mind. There are so many quick, easy and healthy ways to cook at home. Planning meals ahead of time, cooking in bulk and following quick and easy recipes all form part of this. Try checking out Jamie Olivers ‘5 Ingredients: Quick & Easy Food’ book, or Kim McCosker’s ‘4 Ingredient’ cookbook series. They are both great places to start!

 

  1. Cook to unwind.

Following on from my last point, if you can, I strongly encourage you to try prioritise carving out some time in your day for cooking and meal preparation. We all need study breaks, and taking advantage of this time can be a good way to go about it. Through my experience, I have found cooking to be a fun and creative outlet to break up my study days. In doing this, I have found that cooking can become a relaxing part of my day where I can practice being present and mindful; both of which are also important aspects of creating healthy habits for your mind.

 

  1. Don’t forget to treat yourself!

Due to the dieting culture we live amongst, many people believe that in order to have a healthy diet, all treat foods need to be avoided. Remember that second to nutrition, food is also intended to be enjoyed. Striving for perfection with food and what you eat is a recipe for failure. Know that sometimes a chocolate bar or a piece of cake are exactly what your body, and mind need. Remember that aiming to include treats throughout the week is all part of what makes up a healthy mind and relationship with food.

 

References

Firth, J., Marx, W., Dash, S., Carney, R., Teasdale, S. B., Solmi, M., Stubbs, B., Schuch, F. B., Carvalho, A. F., Jacka, F., & Sarris, J. (2019). The Effects of Dietary Improvement on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Psychosomatic medicine, 81(3), 265–280.

Headspace (2018). Eating for a healthy headspace. Retrieved from https://headspace.org.au/young-people/eating-for-a-healthy-headspace/

Jacka, F. N., O’Neil, A., Opie, R., Itsiopoulos, C., Cotton, S., Mohebbi, M., Castle, D., Dash, S., Mihalopoulos, C., Chatterton, M. L., Brazionis, L., Dean, O. M., Hodge, A. M., & Berk, M. (2017). A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC medicine, 15(1), 23.

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2 thoughts on “Nutrition and mental health: 6 tips to create a healthy mind as a university student

  1. Excellent tips for good nutrition and its link to mental wellbeing, thank you! I also try and cook with my husband one night a week – it’s fun, we’re doing something together, there’s a tangible (and usually very tasty) outcome, and a good way to wind down from the day. Keep up the great blogs!

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