As the new year begins, many people like me look for ways to improve their health and well-being. Nutrition is an important aspect of overall health and can have a significant physical and mental impact.
2023 didn’t come with a renewed sense of hope for me. Rather, it came with a mindset of progress — continuation not perfection — and a much-needed reminder to be kind and compassionate with myself along the way.
For a long time, my idea of a new year meant a completely new slate — a blank canvas. It meant that any past mistakes could easily be erased and forgotten. Each year was welcomed with a shiny new set of nutrition goals.
In reality, building healthy habits takes time and effort. In the last few months, I’ve discovered that instead of seeing the new year as a clean slate, it’s more helpful to think of it as an opportunity to contribute to a lifetime of healthy habits.
When it comes to nutrition, consider not just the physical benefits, but also the impact on your mental health. Research has shown that a healthy diet can help improve mood, reduce the risk of certain mental health conditions, and promote overall mental well-being.
On the other hand, restrictive diets and disordered eating patterns can negatively impact your mental health by making you more anxious, depressed, or prone to low self-esteem.
Therefore, it’s important to find a sustainable, balanced approach to nutrition that takes into account both physical and mental health.
The dangers of restrictive dieting
Restrictive dieting involves severely limiting or eliminating certain types of foods, often for rapid weight loss. Examples of restrictive diets include:
- Low-carb diets (e.g. Atkins, ketogenic diet)
- Low-fat diets
- Very low calorie diets (VLCDs)
- Elimination diets (e.g. gluten-free, dairy-free)
- One meal a day diet (OMAD)
Restrictive dieting is tempting because it promises quick results, but it’s neither sustainable nor healthy.
Falling into the “diet trap” of restrictive dieting can have negative impacts on mental health, such as disordered eating patterns and low self-esteem.
Disordered eating patterns include behaviours such as binge eating, purging, and obsessively counting calories or measuring portion sizes.
These behaviours can lead to a preoccupation with food and weight, which can tank your mental health.
Low self-esteem can also result from the feeling of failure or inadequacy when restrictive diets aren’t successful or are difficult to maintain.
Finding a sustainable, balanced approach to nutrition includes:
- Focusing on whole and unprocessed foods
- Being mindful of portion sizes
- Making time for regular meals and snacks
A sustainable approach to nutrition is more likely to be successful in the long term.
Are restrictive diets all bad?
Not entirely. There are some situations where restrictive diets may be necessary for health reasons.
For example, if you have certain medical conditions, such as celiac disease or food allergies, you may need to follow a restrictive diet to manage your condition. However, it’s important to work with your doctor or dietitian when following a restrictive diet for health reasons. They can help ensure your diet is nutritionally balanced and meets your needs.
3 ways to improve nutrition without dieting
Research has shown that following a healthy diet high in fruits, vegetables, and other whole, unprocessed foods lowers your risk of developing depression.
Similarly, a diet high in unhealthy, processed foods increases your risk of developing depression and other mental health problems.
But there’s good news. Certain nutrients found in healthy, whole foods can improve your mental health.
For example, omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fatty fish, nuts, and seeds, are important for brain function and can improve your mood.
B vitamins, which are found in whole grains, nuts, and leafy green vegetables, are also important for energy production and have been linked to improved mood and brain function.
Overall, improving nutrition and focusing on a healthy, balanced diet is an important aspect of maintaining good mental health. There are many ways to improve nutrition without resorting to restrictive diets. Some strategies include:
#1 Focus on whole, unprocessed foods
Choose minimally processed foods. These types of foods are often more nutritious and can help provide a balanced, satisfying diet.
Examples of whole, unprocessed foods include:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables: These are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fibre, which are important for a variety of bodily functions. They are also low in calories and can help you manage your weight.
- Whole grains: Oats, quinoa, and brown rice are rich in fibre, which can improve digestion and reduce the risk of certain diseases. They are also a good source of energy-providing complex carbohydrates.
- Legumes: Beans, lentils, and chickpeas are high in protein, fiber, iron and folate. They are a good plant-based protein source and can help improve your energy levels.
- Lean proteins: Chicken, fish, and tofu provide important nutrients for muscle maintenance and repair. They can also keep you feeling fuller for longer.
How to be savvy when shopping for groceries
How you shop in the grocery store is an important aspect of dieting culture because it affects the types of foods you have available to you at home, which affects the types of foods you eat.
The way a grocery store is laid out, the placement of products, the marketing strategies used, can all influence the choices you make.
Grocery stores are designed to get you to spend more time and money.
One way they do this is by placing the most profitable items, such as processed and packaged foods, in strategic locations throughout the store.
For example, the end caps of aisles are often used to display high-profit items, such as snack foods and beverages.
Similarly, the front of the store, where the fresh produce and dairy sections are typically located, is also a high-traffic area. These areas are often used to display items to draw you in, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
These factors can influence the types of foods you choose. For example, if you’re shopping in a rush and only have a few minutes to grab a few items, you’re more likely to reach for convenient, pre-packaged items that are easily accessible.
On the other hand, if you have more time to shop and are looking for healthier options, you’re more likely to seek out whole, unprocessed foods in the fresh produce and dairy sections.
Reading food labels can be helpful to determining how processed a food item is and to make an informed choice.
Here are some tips for reading food labels:
- Check the ingredient list: The ingredient list on a food label lists all of the ingredients used in the product, in order of the amount used. Ingredients are listed by weight, with the largest amount listed first. A shorter ingredient list with fewer ingredients that are familiar and easy to pronounce may indicate a less processed product.
- Look for added sugars: Added sugars, such as corn syrup, fructose, and dextrose, can be added to processed foods to improve flavor and texture. These sugars can contribute to weight gain and other health problems. The label will list the total amount of sugars in the product, as well as the amount of added sugars. It’s a good idea to choose foods with minimal added sugars.
- Check the fibre content: Fibre improves digestion. High-fibre foods are typically less processed and can help you feel fuller for longer. Choose foods with at least 3 grams of fibre per serving.
- Consider the serving size: The serving size on a food label tells you how much of the product is considered one serving.
Focus on a variety of whole, unprocessed foods for healthier nutrition.
#2 Be mindful of portion sizes
Pay attention to how much you are eating, rather than simply cutting out certain types of foods. Overeating or consuming too many calories can lead to weight gain and other health problems.
Portion sizes are often influenced by cultural and societal factors, and can be passed down from generation to generation. Research has shown that portion sizes have increased significantly over the past several decades, particularly in Western countries.
Portion sizes have gone up before we have more fast-food restaurants and other food outlets that offer larger portions. Beware of portion sizes and control how much you eat, particularly if you have a family history of weight-related health problems.
Use measuring cups or a food scale to get a more accurate idea of portion sizes, use smaller plates and bowls, don’t skip meals, and be mindful of how much you eat.
#3 Make time for regular meals and snacks
Skipping meals or going too long without eating can lead to overeating or making poor food choices. Ensure you have healthy options available and make time for regular meals and snacks to help regulate blood sugar levels and prevent energy dips.
This can increase your energy, lead to better moods, and result in better health overall.
Superfoods for mood and energy
“Superfoods” are foods that provide improved mood and energy levels. Some examples of superfoods include:
- Leafy greens: Spinach, kale, and broccoli, are high in vitamins and minerals, including iron and folate, which are important for energy production. They are also high in antioxidants, which can help reduce inflammation and improve overall health.
- Berries: Strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries are high in fibre and antioxidants, which can help improve digestion and reduce the risk of certain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and heart diseases. They are also a good source of vitamin C, which can help boost the immune system.
- Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, and pistachios, are high in healthy fats, protein, and fibre, which can help improve energy levels and keep you feeling fuller for longer. They are also a good source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E and magnesium.
- Fermented foods: Yoghurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut are rich in probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria that can help improve digestion and boost the immune system. They may also have potential benefits for mood and brain function.
Remember that while superfoods may have potential health benefits, they should not be relied on as a quick fix and should be part of a balanced, varied diet.
It’s a good idea to experiment with different superfoods to see which ones work best for you, but it’s also important to take a sustainable, balanced approach to nutrition.
Debunking nutrition myths
There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding nutrition that can make it difficult for you to make informed choices about what you eat. Here are a few examples of common nutritional myths and the truth behind them:
#1 Myth: Eating fat makes you fat.
Fact: Not all fats are created equal.
Some types of fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, are beneficial for overall health and can help reduce the risk of heart disease. These fats are found in foods like avocados, nuts, and fatty fish.
On the other hand, trans fats and saturated fats are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and should be limited in the diet.
#2 Myth: Carbohydrates are bad for you.
Fact: Carbohydrates are an important source of energy for your body and are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.
The key is to choose complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, over simple carbohydrates, like white bread or sugary foods, which can cause blood sugar spikes and contribute to weight gain.
#3 Myth: You should avoid gluten if you want to be healthy.
Fact: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.
While some people with celiac disease need to avoid gluten, most people don’t need to avoid gluten in their diet.
Whole grains, such as whole wheat, barley, and rye, are an important source of nutrients and should be included in a healthy diet.
#4 Myth: You need to detox or cleanse your body to be healthy.
Fact: Your body has its own detoxification system that includes the liver, kidneys, and colon.
There is no scientific evidence to support the idea that detox or cleansing products or diets can remove toxins from the body. Save your money — those products aren’t worth it.
Control what you eat
Taking control of your nutrition is essential for maintaining good health and well-being. Improving nutrition can be challenging, especially when there is so much conflicting information available.
The key is to find a balanced approach that works for you and your lifestyle, as there is no one-size fits all approach to your health.
Always be mindful of the pressure to be healthy, especially at the start of the year, and be kind and compassionate with yourself along the way. Remember, the most important thing is to strive for progress, not perfection.
In health and happiness, Chef Lee
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Special thanks to Dr. Shehu for helping me edit this piece.
Chef Lerato Mokonyane has worked for some of South Africa's best-known brands such as McCain, Topo Chico, Eskort, and Sutherland Wines. She's passionate about recipe development, food photography, and everyday nutrition.