by AINSLEY LAWRENCE
Everyone knows that eating healthy food is essential. Since childhood, we’ve heard things like you are what you eat, a healthy outside starts with a healthy inside, and an apple a day keeps the doctor away.
But just how much does healthy eating really impact our minds and bodies? And what exactly does it mean to “eat healthy?” Let’s find out.
Happy Gut, Happy Life
Everyone talks about how the mind is a powerful thing, but so is your gut. In fact, the gut can have such a significant impact on your mood, cognitive function, and your overall health that many consider the digestive system the “second brain” or the enteric nervous system (ENS).
But how does the brain-gut connection work exactly?
The ENS is made of over 100 million nerve cells, and — while not capable of thought in the way our brain is — it does communicate back and forth with our brain.
Yes, the primary function of the gut is to control digestion, from swallowing and breaking down foods to the control of blood flow, which adds in nutrient absorption and elimination. But if all of those processes aren’t functioning correctly, it can mess with the gut’s signals to the brain, which can then start disrupting other functions in the body. And the best way to keep the gut functioning properly is to eat healthy, nutrient-rich foods.
Think of food as the medicine you need to prevent disease and other ailments. When people don’t eat right, they can develop gut issues like IBS or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and those irritations then result in signals to the brain that can trigger mood changes. And those changes in mood and how your gut feels — i.e., not good — can then lead to things like depression and anxiety. In fact, many nutritional psychologists believe there is a strong connection between nutrition and mental health issues.
Once you start developing these gut issues and even mental health issues, so many other things in the body can start to go wrong, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. In contrast, the healthier you eat and the more nutrients you absorb, the more you can prevent all of those issues and stay happy and healthy, both in mind and body.
What Constitutes Healthy Eating?
So, we know that healthy eating is important, but what does eating healthy mean exactly?
According to the World Health Organization, a healthy diet includes:
- Five portions (400 g) of fruits and vegetables per day
- Limiting sugar intake to less than 50 g a day
- Aiming for less than 30% of energy intake from fats a day, with unsaturated fats being preferred over saturated or trans-fats
- Less than 5 g of salt per day
This means a healthy balance of daily fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. But healthy eating isn’t just about the specific foods you put in your body; it’s also about so many other things, like how you eat, when you eat, and other habits surrounding your eating habits.
It’s also important to understand that it’s okay to eat things that aren’t on the recommended list of healthy foods. Stressing too much about eating only healthy foods and calorie counting, for example, can lead to eating disorders. It’s okay to treat yourself now and then and not always have the ideal healthy foods on your plate.
In the end, healthy eating is all about balance — balancing what you eat and balancing your lifestyle and eating habits.
Tips for Improving the Mind and Body Through Healthy Eating Habits
So, if you want to feel better all around and help your diet, you need to eat right but also live right. The tips below can help.
1. Eat More Nutrient-Rich Foods
The body needs certain essential nutrients to function properly. Without these key nutrients, you can disrupt the gut and the signals that are sent to your brain. And the nutrients everyone needs to have every day include:
- B Vitamins
- Vitamin D
2. Drink More Water
Yes, the amount of water you drink daily can impact your diet and gut health. Of course, most people know they need water to stay hydrated, but drinking water is about so much more than that.
Drinking enough water every day is essential as it not only keeps you hydrated but it also helps lubricate your joints, aids digestion, and helps carry nutrients to your body’s cells. Drinking more water can also help you feel fuller and avoid overeating.
3. Eating Better Portion Sizes
When it comes to healthy eating, it’s not always about what you eat but how much you eat. Portion control is essential for better digestion.
So instead of eating three big meals a day, try eating smaller meals more frequently. Smaller meals digest faster, which means the nutrients from the meals will be absorbed faster.
4. Practice Healthy Lifestyle Habits
Healthier lifestyle habits, like regular exercise and getting enough sleep, are also essential for proper gut function. When you exercise, you help your bodily functions stay strong, and you burn the energy necessary to help you sleep better at night. And when you sleep better at night, your body gets the rest and energy it needs to then function properly the next day.
When you don’t get regular exercise or enough sleep each night, your body becomes sluggish, which means your digestive system becomes sluggish and doesn’t work as well. Certain foods can also help give you the energy you need to power through workouts and live a more active lifestyle, such as leafy greens, nuts, berries, eggs, lean meat, and whole grains.
Spending more time outside can also help boost your mood, which can help you make healthier eating choices. When our mood is down, we tend to turn toward comfort foods, which are not good to eat all the time. But when we are in a better mood, we are more inclined to reach for foods that will continue to help us feel better.
So try spending more time outside. This can include exercising outdoors, socializing outdoors, and even dining outdoors when you can. In fact, many restaurants offer outdoor seating not just for added space but because customers are generally in a better mood when they get to eat outdoors.
Eat Your Best, Feel Your Best
In summary, the better you eat, the better you feel. It’s okay to treat yourself now and then and to not always be a stickler about what goes on your plate. But the more healthy choices you make, the more you will improve your gut, your mood, and your overall health. And this includes eating right and making healthier lifestyle choices.