Find Your Ideal Diet
“The food you eat can either be the safest most powerful form of medicine, or the slowest form of poison.”
– Ann Wigmore
The food that you eat makes up one of the two major pillars of physical and mental health, the other being how much you exercise.
Your mind and body are completely interconnected.
It is difficult to remain in a sound mind when you are feeling lethargic, sick, bloated, tired, run-down, or suffering from pain.
You literally are what you eat.
Just like a car needs clean, good quality petrol, oil, and other fluids to function and avoid break downs, so your body needs nutrition. It is possible in an emergency to drive without coolant for a while – but you won’t be driving for long. Eventually something will catastrophically break down. The same is true for the body. Poor quality foods may keep you going for a while, but use them for too long and you will suffer major physical and mental consequences. Unlike a car however, you can’t just buy a new body!
The effects of poor dietary choices are not immediately obvious. It is hard for us to see the cause and effect relationship that exists between the food we are eating now, and our physical and mental health over the next five to fifty years. So rather than eating the foods that will be beneficial in the long term, we eat the foods that will make us feel good in the short term.
We eat to feel better or to reward ourselves for surviving a difficult day. We order take away because we ‘don’t have the time’ to make a better meal for ourselves. We develop a taste for processed foods that are high in saturated fats, salt and sugar, then we start to crave these foods and repeatedly consume them. This becomes a downward spiral that is hard to escape. Over time, these poor quality foods begin to take a toll on our bodies. We start to loose energy, put on weight and get sick.
In the short term, our moods can be dramatically impacted by what we eat. Foods high in sugar cause our energy levels to dramatically rise for a few minutes, and then plummet. This has a dramatic effect on our moods. We feel great when full of energy, but terrible when low. Foods high in saturated fats and salts can result in dehydration and a general feeling of heaviness.
The food you eat impacts your mental state, so choose wisely!
The purpose of this chapter is to ensure that your diet is having a positive impact upon your mental health or at least not making it any worse. I want to clarify that while the suggestions that follow may have an impact upon your weight or fat levels, aesthetic changes are not the goal. That being said, as mental health is often also tied to our physical image (or the perception of our physical image), I will provide you with some guidelines on how to successfully diet in a way that will safely produce some noticeable physical changes.
What Is The Ideal Diet?
This is the obvious question, but it unfortunately does not have an easy answer. It is important to be aware that everyone is different in terms of body type, gender, ethnicity, age, personality and life circumstances. It would be ludicrous to assume that there is a particular diet that will be perfect for everyone. However there are some general principles that everyone should consider implementing:
Drink Lots Of Water
Headaches, mental cloudiness, fatigue, tiredness and mood swings are all symptoms of dehydration that can be easily avoided by consuming more water. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty to drink, because by the time you feel thirst, you are already mildly dehydrated, and will therefore be suffering from its effects.
There is no recommended amount of water that you should drink per day - given all the differences between people described above, the ‘8 glasses per day’ guideline is not appropriate to apply to everyone. One of the easiest ways to tell if you are not drinking enough water is to look at the colour of your urine. It should be pale yellow, clear and odorless. If it’s not, you are either dehydrated or there is a much larger medical issue that you need to address!
If you consume a glass of alcohol, soft drink or coffee, be sure to have an extra glass of water to replace what you will lose. These drinks are diuretics, which means that they make you expel more liquids than they provide, causing dehydration.
I like to drink two glasses in the morning (this completely eliminates any morning headaches) and then consistently throughout the day, particularly after exercise. In total I consume at least two liters per day.
Eat Lots Of Fruit And Vegetables
Aim to eat at least two pieces of fruit and five vegetables per day. This will help to ensure that you are consuming most of the micro nutrients that your body needs to grow and develop. A general guide is that the more diverse your diet is, the healthier your mind and body will be. Juice doesn’t count (see the next point below).
Although you can take steps to determine the optimal ratio of which fruits and vegetables to consume, the process is terribly time consuming and stressful. I prefer to use the ‘colour’ approach. Each ‘colour’ of fruit or vegetable roughly correlates with different micro nutrients that the body needs. I aim to eat as many different colours of fruit and vegetables with each meal as possible, ideally with each item being a different colour.
Green: Broccoli, Beans, Lettuce, Spinach, Cucumber
White: Cauliflower, Radish, Potato
Yellow: Corn, Capsicum, Banana
Orange: Sweet Potato, Carrot, Orange
Red: Tomato, Strawberries, Raspberries, Pomegranate
Purple/Blue: Eggplant, Beetroot, Berries
Eat As Little Processed Foods As Possible
In general, the more processes that a food goes through, the less good it is for you. Compare a freshly butchered steak to a frozen hamburger patty. The steak is consumed very quickly after butchering, and only goes through one process: cooking. A frozen hamburger patty on the other hand requires mincing, preserving, freezing, transport, storage and cooking. While there is still nutritional benefits to be gained from eating the hamburger patty, you would get far more benefit from eating the same amount of steak.
Juice is another prime example of the issues with processing foods. The act of juicing removes most of the fibre from the fruit, and leaves you with a mixture of vitamins and sugared water. The amount of naturally occurring sugar in fruit juice is about the same as that in soft drinks. This catches a lot of people out, they switch to juice for a healthier alternative, but don’t realise that they are still consuming just as much sugar as before. When consumed as a whole fruit (or in a smoothie), the fibre remains and is consumed. This fibre offsets the natural sugars in the fruit and makes whole fruit consumption a very healthy option.
A rule that I like to live by is ‘eat food that can go off’. The next time you are in a supermarket, take a look at the expiry dates of the food that you are considering purchasing. The longer that it takes to expire, the more processes that that food would have had to go through to ensure that it survives, thus less nutrition is contained within that food. I would much prefer to eat fresh fruit than canned, fresh meat than cured, and fresh dairy than frozen.
The only exception to this is ‘snap frozen’ vegetables and berries. If the producer picks and freezes the produce on the same day, and it remains frozen until consumption, the nutritional benefits are locked in. When compared to ‘fresh fruit’ that was picked early and left to ripen on the shelves to be purchased weeks later, frozen fruit often has more nutritional value.
If you are unsure about what processed foods to avoid, consider applying the rules of the ‘Grandma Diet’. This involves looking at the ingredient list and avoiding the foods that contain ingredients that your grandma wouldn’t be able to recognise as food. This will help to put into perspective just how much additives your food has.
Eat Healthy Fats
The consumption of fat has been demonised as unhealthy for many years, ‘eat too much fat and you will gain weight’. This has led to the rise of low fat ‘skim’ options. The problem is that these options are high in sugar, which of course is terrible for you. Ironically, by regularly eating fat, your body will actually store less fat on it. This is because, regular consumption of fat lets the body know that it is getting enough fats externally and does not need to store it on the body for future use.
Not all fat is made equal. The good fats, the ones you should consume, are collectively known as ‘unsaturated fats’. These can be found in nuts, avocado, olives, salmon, tuna, dark chocolate, eggs, seeds, tofu, grass fed beef, coconut, Greek yoghurt, cheese, duck and many other foods.
Bad fats, the ones to avoid, are known as ‘saturated fats’. The main source of saturated fats come from deep fried and highly processed foods. Eat too much and you will suffer issues with cholesterol, diabetes and weight gain. It is important to note that a percentage of the fat contained in meat and dairy is saturated, however don’t take that as a reason to cut them from your diet, rather consume better quality meats, particularly the leaner cuts.
Eating lots of good fat has been revolutionary for my diet, and subsequently my mental state.
I start every day with a ‘yoghurt pod’. In addition to yoghurt (Greek, no added sugar), it contains walnuts, macadamias, seeds, coconut, coconut oil, dark chocolate (90% cacao), and blueberries. This meal is full of healthy carbohydrates and protein, but also is high in good fats. The effect is that I can eat a small serving and feel quite full for many hours. This is not the case when I eat only meat or carbohydrates like rice or pasta. The good fat sustains me throughout the day. I end up craving less and subsequently snacking less, both of which do wonders for my physical and mental health. Give it a try!
Along with good fat, protein is vital for optimal bodily functioning. Low levels of protein consumption can lead to a lack of energy, fatigue, ‘brain fog’, lowering moods, poor muscle recovery (or muscle atrophy) and other significant health concerns.
The best source of protein hands down is meat, however there are many vegetarian sources of protein as well. These include eggs, milk, cheese, Greek yoghurt, soy, rice, peas, mushrooms, quinoa, beans, avocado, seeds, peas, artichokes, tempeh, nuts, nut butters, spinach, and many more.
I will briefly talk about recommended levels of protein consumption below, but please be aware that the process of measuring and ensuring you are consuming ‘enough’ can be a bit complex and daunting for some people. Counting protein can be as stressful as counting calories. If this is the case for you, make it easy on yourself and just make sure that you are eating a source of protein with each meal. It won’t be perfect, but it will suffice!
For those who want a deeper look at protein consumption: It is recommended that we consume 0.8 - 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of weight each day. If you weigh 80 kilograms, you should be consuming between 64-104 grams of protein. Given the mental health benefits (as well as benefits for muscle growth) I always aim to consume towards the higher end.
Please note that 100 grams of protein per day, does not mean that you can just consume 100 grams of chicken or spinach. You need to look at the macro nutrient content of the item first. 100 grams of chicken contains 27 grams of protein, whereas 100 grams of spinach contains 2.9 grams of protein. If you were to eat a meal with 100g of chicken and 100g spinach you would have eaten a combined amount of 30g of protein in that meal (27g from the chicken and 3g from the spinach). This is about a third of your daily goal.
There is a reason that you have a craving. Your body is asking for something that it needs. A craving means that your body is lacking a particular nutrient or mineral that it is currently deficient in and is trying to let you know about it. You drink when thirsty, eat when hungry, so why not satisfy cravings when they arise? Doing so will make the craving stop, you no longer are inflicted by the mental duress of the craving, and your body has the nutrients that it needs.
The key here is portion control, don’t use a craving as an excuse to eat heaps of junk food.
If you are craving something unhealthy, eat the smallest amount of it needed in order to stop the craving. For example, if I am craving chocolate I will eat a 10g serving (one piece) of good quality 90% dark chocolate dipped in coconut oil. Often this small amount of strong chocolate takes away any cravings that I previously had, and the oil adds to the flavour. I have found that it is best to wait 10 minutes before eating more of the craved food as it can take that long for the body to register that the nutrients are being absorbed.
If you find yourself ‘craving’ a particularly sweet or salty treat daily, you may in fact have an addiction to that food. Treat this like any other addiction and attempt to ‘Change Habits Slowly’ (chapter, 3.5). That means attempting to slowly reduce and eventually eliminate the problem foods.
Supplement With Fish Oil, Zinc, Vitamin B and Probiotics
Supplementation is a contentious issue, there is a belief that you should ideally get all of the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that you need from your food. However in reality, this rarely is the case, your diet will likely be lacking in something or another.
This is why I supplement each day with fish oil, zinc and vitamin B. They have all been shown to increase mental functioning and aid with mental health. I take them daily and have noticed a steady improvement in both cognitive functioning and mood as well as a significant reduction in joint pain.
Probiotics are basically good gut bacteria. Things that we need to maintain optimal health and digestive functioning. I prefer to consume probiotics in the form of kimchi, kombucha and Greek yoghurt as they occur naturally in each. However you can get probiotics in tablet form as well.
Supplementation can become quite expensive and there is a risk of purchasing poor quality products. In addition, it is difficult to see an immediate result from supplementation. This can lead to doubting if you even need them at all. If you do choose to start supplementation, begin by adding one supplement to your diet, waiting two months to see if it is making a difference, and then adding a second and so on.
If you add a bunch of supplements all at once, you won’t know which, if any, are making an impact on your health.
Finally, please consider talking to a nutritionist, dietitian or doctor for more assistance with personalising supplements for you. They can perform blood tests to determine if you are lacking in anything and could recommend dietary changes or specific supplements.
Minimise Caffeine Consumption
Coffee, tea and energy drinks all contain caffeine. Besides the taste and social aspect, the ‘waking up’ and ‘increased focus’ aspects of the drinks is probably the main reason that they are so popular. The problem is that for some people, caffeine consumption can significantly raise anxiety levels.
The stimulant nature of caffeine can increase stress hormones, disrupt neurotransmitter balance, and impact the nutrient levels in the body. The exact neurological mechanisms in which caffeine operates upon the brain and nervous system is quite complicated, but the important thing to note is that caffeine is a drug that impacts the brain.
Some people are completely fine with varying levels of caffeine consumption, others are not; particularly those who suffer with an anxiety disorder. The stimulating effects of caffeine interact with the already over stimulated mental state of the consumer. This combines and can trigger increasing levels of anxiety or even panic attacks. The more that is consumed, the higher the anxiety levels.
The article ‘15 Links Between Caffeine and Anxiety’ bebrainfit.com/caffeine-anxiety, presents a well referenced, comprehensive summary of the many impacts that caffeine can have on anxiety levels, as well as provides advice on how to ensure that you are not accidently overconsuming it.
I can’t have more than one weak coffee per day without noticing a considerable increase in my anxiety levels. Strong coffee, and in particular energy drinks are like poison to my mind. Consuming one small can of energy drink, often causes me to suffer from panic attacks as well as to become increasingly incapacitated by general anxiety.
What If I Want To Lose Weight?
I completely understand the desire to want to change your physical body, both from the aesthetic and health perspectives. Being happy with how you look is an amazing boost to mental health and is a great goal to progress towards. However there are a lot of pitfalls that can trap people into wasting significant amounts of time, money and effort for little to no reward.
The most important thing that you can do when attempting to make changes in your diet is to ‘Change Habits Slowly’ (chapter 3.5). The food that you eat is habitual, you are used to the taste, the nutrient content, how to prepare it, and where to shop for it. Changing your diet involves changing many habits (and potentially the habits of other family members) and as such should be taken slowly.
Make slow incremental changes to your diet.
Although it is possible to do a complete 180 degree turn and switch to eating ‘perfectly’, chances are that you won’t be able to maintain it into the future. Most people slowly revert back to their old habits, or they binge on junk foods for a day or two and then give up on the new diet completely. A far more sustainable approach is to slowly introduce ‘good’ foods and slowly remove ‘bad’ foods.
If you eat dessert each night, and drink soft drink during the day, your body is used to extremely high levels of sugar. Instantly cutting these out of your diet will result in a massive shock to the system. So instead start to slowly reduce the amount that you consume each day. Simultaneously adding one serving of fruit and vegetables each day is far easier than instantly adding a large bowl of salad to each meal.
Aim for slow weight loss.
A problem that a lot of would be dieters fall into is wanting to lose it all instantly. Unfortunately, this just won’t work. Attempting to change your habits enough to lose weight quickly is unsustainable. Losing too much weight too quickly sends your body into a state of shock.
The body doesn’t know the difference between an extreme diet and a famine.
It judges the conditions of your life based on what type of food you are eating and how much of it you are getting each day. If you were to cut calories and fats through dieting, your body may assume that the environment that you are living in doesn’t have a consistent food source available. It will assume that you are in the middle of a famine.
So when this famine breaks (ie: your diet ends), it will want to protect you from another famine (ie: a new diet) by stockpiling fat. The body is preparing itself for another famine in the future, and wants to make sure that you have the necessary fat stores to weather it.
This is why people often gain back all the weight they lost as soon as their diet ends.
Instead, aim for slow, incremental weight loss of about 200g per week, with no more than 500g lost each week. This is slow enough to be sustainable, and it won’t come as a massive shock to the system.
Avoid all fad diets, they almost never work.
Most diets that you see advertised in magazines, online or on infomercials can be placed into the category of a ‘fad diet’.
Despite recommending widely different foods and eating patterns, these diets have a lot of common factors, all which work to their detriment. You know that you have a fad diet when it:
- Recommends fast and dramatic changes to your current diet with little or no mention of how to handle the transition period. These kind of transitions are rarely able to be maintained.
- Involves high levels of caloric or food restriction – often called a ‘detox’, ‘cleanse’ or ‘fast’. The diet will restrict the user into only drinking particular kinds of juices, smoothies, fruits, vegetables or supplement shakes.
- Promises quick weight loss and amazing changes. This is a trick, as initially dieters will indeed quickly see dramatic weight loss. However such caloric restrictions are impossible to maintain because it involves literally putting the body into a state of starvation. Only having juice for a month is a terrible idea!
- Is a new diet, has a fancy name, celebrity endorsements and purchasable supplements. It is very easy for marketers to leverage the power of celebrities, and combine their pull with the celebrity’s good (slim) looks and package it in a magazine advert or day time infomercial slot. These adverts promise it all, and suggest that the celebrity achieves their body using the diet. This is rarely true. Most likely the celebrity is being paid lots of money to endorse the product and actually has an army of personal chefs, dietitians and personal trainers to look after every aspect of their body. All things that the average person doesn’t have access to.
Not all diets you discover will be fad diets, but unfortunately most will, in chapter 4.9 ‘Learn To Fact Check’ I use different diet claims as a way to practice fact checking, please read that chapter as well before choosing a new diet.
A great way to easily lose weight is through portion control. This basically means eating everything that you are currently eating, but just eating less of the ‘bad foods’, things high in sugar and saturated fats, and more of the ‘good foods’, nutritionally dense, fresh foods.
This approach works well because there is no real change to the diet that is being consumed. The dieter still gets to eat their favorite foods, they still get dessert and they are not restricted to particular restaurants socially.
For example if you consume two liters of soft drink per day, reduce it (at least for the time being) to 1.5 liters. Rather than eating a king size chocolate bar each day, instead eat a regular size bar. If you find that these changes are making you hungry, eat some more lean meat, good fats, fruits or vegetables with dinner.
A good diet will acknowledge that diet is only half of the weight loss process. ‘Daily Exercise’ (chapter 2.4) is also a must. Not only will the exercise help to burn up more calories (leading to more weight loss), but it also has positive effects on metabolism. It will cause the body to operate better, and begin to burn some of the fat stores.
Continue the conversation
How has dieting impacted your mental health?
Tweet @zacpphillips #diet, with your thoughts.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Should I prioritise my diet over other mental health concerns? The process of changing my diet is quite stressful for me.
A: Take it slowly, more slowly than you think you should. This could literally mean just adding one more glass of water to your daily consumption. No other changes, just that one. Slowly, when that extra water becomes a habit, make another small change, perhaps by adding one piece of banana to your daily meal.
Go as slow as needed to make positive changes, while still maintaining a positive mental state.
Q: I suffer from an eating disorder but I want to eat well, what should I do?
A: Attempting to alter a diet for someone with or recovering from an eating disorder can be extremely triggering. I would strongly suggest that you should start by speaking to your therapist or doctor about your desire to make a change. With their help, you will formulate a plan that will help you to make beneficial changes, while providing you with the support that you need.
Q: I have read about a new diet option, but I am not sure if it is a ‘fad’ or one that is legitimate. How can I determine if I should try it?
A: There are a few options that you can employ to fact check a diet. I talk about this process extensively in chapter 4.9 ‘Learn How To Fact Check’, but the basic approach would be to compare it to the advice in this chapter.
If you find differences of opinion, investigate the arguments supporting both sides. A good way to start your search would be to Google ‘Your Diet Name debunked’. This will provide you with links to articles talking about why your potential diet doesn’t work. Although of course it is important to realise that those articles could also biased. Be open minded, perhaps you have found something that works, perhaps not. Either way, just be willing to change your opinion if new information arises!
My Fitness Pal app
If It Fits Your Macros: iifym.com
15 Links Between Caffeine and Anxiety, Brain Fit: bebrainfit.com/caffeine-anxiety
The Truth About Fats: health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-truth-about-fats-bad-and-good
The Little Book Of Big Weight Loss, Bernadette Fisers
Given that the body and mind are completely interconnected, it is vital for your mental health that you consume the best foods possible. You literally are what you eat.