How to eat your way out of a slump

body and health coaching Jan 29, 2019

What if I told you that what's causing your slump might be in the food you eat?

No, this isn't some conspiracy theory. What we eat has a real impact on our gut health, our brains, on every single aspect of our bodies – which includes how we think and feel.

I saw this clearly a few years ago when my friend "Tara" called me, sounding desperate.

"I don’t know what to do," she said, sounding close to tears. "I feel exhausted all the time. The littlest things make me break down crying. I can barely function at work…I need help. Something's wrong."

Tara had a history of ups and downs, and had tried various treatments. But something still wasn't working. We talked, and our conversation turned to food.

"How are you eating?" I asked. "What's your diet like?" I wondered if something in her diet might be exacerbating her current state.

"Not great," she said. "I know I should be eating better, but I'm so tired I can barely cook, so I just eat junk food most of the time. Especially lately, I've been so stressed that I eat a lot of sweets."

I asked her if she'd be willing to try cutting out some potential "trigger" foods – namely, sugar. "I'll try anything, honestly," she said.

For the next few weeks, Tara avoided sugar like the plague. She stopped putting it in her coffee, stopped eating a cookie with her lunch, and even cut the store-bought salad dressing and spaghetti sauce. A month after our first phone call, I went over to her house for dinner, where she served beautiful roasted vegetables and baked fish. While we ate, she told me about what had changed for her.

"At first, when I cut out sugar," she said, "I hated it. I felt like a crazy person. My kids couldn't stand to be around me. But after a week or so, I started to feel better, and I noticed something: I was sleeping better. My emotions weren't getting out of control. I could concentrate…what a difference it's made. I feel so much more like myself."

Sugar is a huge culprit in anyone's diet, not just Tara's. In addition to wreaking havoc on your psyche, it also contributes to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, inflammation, weight gain, and has been linked to depression and cognitive decline. So if you're feeling at all like Tara was – or if you want more energy, or if your New Year's Resolution was to get healthier – I invite you to cut sugar and notice what it does for you.

(Side note: Craving sugar can be a sign of mineral deficiency, especially magnesium – so if your sweet tooth is acting up, consider taking a look at your diet. Check out ten healthy, magnesium-rich foods here.)

I could write a whole blog post (or more) on the dangers of sugar, but I don't want to ignore the rest of the food pyramid and its effect on your mood. Many people are lacking certain nutrients, or consuming too much of something, and that imbalance can have devastating effects on their mood, energy level, and overall health. And until you correct that imbalance, you're going to feel its effects.

It might take some digging to find it. For me, alcohol is a huge downer. It makes my brain foggy, gives me headaches that last for days, and makes me feel super low-energy, both emotionally and physically. When I realized the effect it had, I stopped drinking except on very special occasions—and the difference is clear.

Here are some other foods that bring you down:

  • Processed food (like cold cuts, baked goods, white bread)
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine
  • Sugar (desserts, soda, bottled iced tea, flavored yogurt, candy, some pasta sauce, nut butters, granola bars, cereal…it's everywhere)
  • Processed foods (white bread, pastries, bleached flour)

Studies have shown that "the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those who eat…a diet high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood, and to contain only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy…. void of processed and refined foods and sugars," writes an article from Harvard Medical School.

Some people are more sensitive to certain foods, or need more of others, based on their diets. For instance, a vegetarian might need to take extra Vitamin B complex pills, and if you're gluten intolerant, of course, you need to avoid wheat. But that's why it's important not just to follow established nutritional advice, but to experiment and find how certain foods affect you.

So if you've got the winter blues, or if you just want to feel better, try this:

Go clean for two weeks. Cut out red meat, dairy, processed foods, alcohol, caffeine. Look for whole, organic, fresh foods. One rule of thumb is this: "If it's a plant, eat it. If it's made in a plant, skip it." Fill your plate with vegetables, especially dark, leafy greens, legumes like beans and peas, and omega-3 nuts, like pistachios, cashews, and almonds.

(Changing your diet might take some adjustment, like it did for Tara, so start it when you have some flexibility – not the morning your most important meeting.)

Then, after two weeks, start to add back in some of your old foods, little by little. Monitor how you feel, physically as well as emotionally.

What patterns do you see?

What specific foods cause you to feel sick, anxious, restless, exhausted, etc?

If you're not willing to strip your diet to its bare bones, then try a less drastic version. Put more vegetables on your plate, and aim to eat less sugar today than you did yesterday. Even little changes make a difference.

Often, changing your eating habits means changing your cooking habits. If you need some great, healthy, delicious recipes, check out these from my friend at Seasons Olive Oil & Vinegar Tap Room (one of my favorites is below!).

Remember, if you feel like you've tried everything to break out of your slump, you're not alone. You have control over your diet, so you have a say in how your body, mind, and emotions feel. You don't have to feel tired, depressed, and stressed out.

I encourage you to experiment (safely!) with your diet, to see what helps. I bet it'll make more of a difference than you expect.

Go out, eat well, and shine.

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