Good Nutrition is Good Self-Care.
What do you think of when you hear the term “self-care”? As we inch our way toward summer, I know schedules start to really fill up and it can be hard to make sure you’re still doing something for you amidst the chaos. This is especially true as plans for travel and get-togethers can truly throw off your nutrition game. That’s why I thought it would be a perfect time to share an article I wrote after the New Year for DirectHERy about why good nutrition is good self-care, and what “good nutrition” actually looks like. DirectHERy is a free online directory connecting woman-owned businesses with consumers who want them to prosper (and a wonderfully supportive environment in general). This article was written with my fellow women business owners in mind, but it really translates to anyone and everyone who finds it hard to make nutrition a priority when life gets in the way. Enjoy!
Every year at this time, the word “self-care” becomes quite buzzy. From manicures to meditation, it seems like everyone’s talking about ways to take care of yourself. As women and business owners, this is incredibly important as it’s not uncommon for us to neglect our own needs in favor of our work or loved ones. But how often does good nutrition get looped into the story? We all know that what we eat has a huge effect on both our personal and professional lives, yet, growing a good relationship with food isn’t often the first thing that comes to mind when we think about self-care. As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, my philosophy revolves around the notion that good nutrition is the ultimate form of self-care. And while it may not feel like a deep tissue massage, its benefits on your stress, mood, digestion, and overall health absolutely compliment every other beautiful self-care practice you do for your mind and body. Sounds pretty good, right? Read on for my thoughts on why real good nutrition needs to be considered as an integral part of any good self-care routine. Spoiler alert: no quick fixes or miracle potions here.
Check in on your stress.
One thing that I always have my patients check in with is their stress levels. We all know that high stress levels take a toll on our health, but have you ever taken a deeper look at the science of stress? While some degree of stress on the body isn’t a bad thing, as it helps maintain our body’s homeostasis and overall survival, long-term exposure has been shown to cause harmful physiologic changes in terms of memory, cognition, mood disorders, hormones, and the immune system. (1) But perhaps the most significant effect that I see in my practice is the effect of stress on digestion. Chronic stress has been well-studied for its negative effect on appetite, hydration, and the overall functioning of your gastrointestinal (GI) system. (1) Stress (particularly mental and emotional types) affects how well you digest and absorb nutrients, and it may actually lead to GI inflammation by either reactivating or accelerating inflammation and causing IBS-like symptoms. (1) Stress can also cause your body to reabsorb less water from your intestines, which lends itself to poor hydration and possibly feelings of fatigue or lagging. (1) This all affects not only our current nutrition status, but also your future status in terms of the choices you make in terms of nutrition and exercise and how those choices make you feel. If you don’t feel good, you’re less likely to go for something that’s good for you, right? We’ve all been in that cycle. So controlling your stress is one of the building blocks for forming a good nutrition practice, and likewise, poor or undernutrition is a building block for stress. That’s why good nutrition is an essential facet of self-care. Read on...
Ditch the diet.
In terms of self-care, I’m a firm believer that best thing you can do for your body is to nourish it rather than restrict it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, self-care can be defined as “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one's own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.” Now, tell me: When did a diet ever actually make you happy? Or protect your well-being? Or make you less stressed? The notion of dieting, cleansing, detoxing, “giving up,” and the like inevitably brings about feelings or actions related to restriction, guilt, and yes, more stress. And since when were the words “restriction and guilt” ever associated with good self-care? Exactly.
When I talk about good nutrition and self-care, it never means dieting. It means properly fueling and actually feeding your body the basic things it needs to function: high-quality protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates (yes, I said it). I’ll use juicing as an example. Your body is excellent at naturally detoxifying your body through a three-phase fundamental metabolic process in the liver and GI tract. Research shows that this natural detoxification is actually increased with adequate intake of calories, protein, fat, and carbohydrates (I said it again). (2) Fad diets and cleanses, such as juicing, certainly don’t provide adequate nutrition for these processes to occur, and thus the detoxification that you were promised or expecting is insignificant and you’re left feeling hungry, deprived, and miserable. That’s not self-care. In fact, it perpetuates the stress cycle that I explained above. Let’s talk about ways that you can actually incorporate good nutrition into your life without having to stop eating real food.
Balance it out.
The thought of ditching a diet is a scary notion for some people to absorb, and that’s ok, but it also doesn’t mean throwing everything you know about healthful eating aside either. Good nutrition is self-care because your relationship with food has the ability to create a better sense of balance in your life. This reflected in how balanced and varied your nutrition is and how well your food is serving as your fuel. Here are my tips on upping your nourishment:
Get colorful: The more color the better when it comes to nutrition. Not only does it lend itself to more diversity of immune-boosting and inflammation-fighting vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, I’m also convinced that more color in your day is a mood-booster. This isn’t totally off, as a 2013 study found that diets rich in fruits and vegetables were associated with daily feelings of well-being. (3) So, toss some frozen beets in your smoothie, stew some stone fruit for your oatmeal, or make rice with purple cauliflower, and have some fun with it knowing that your body will thank you. Don’t forget brown is a color, too, so go for those wonderful whole-grains for B-vitamins, fiber, antioxidants, and protein.
Eat regularly: This likely won’t come as a shock to you by this point, but I’m in the camp of eating regularly throughout the day. If you go hours without eating, you’re not properly fueling your system, your metabolism goes all out of whack, and things like fatigue, low energy, brain fog, and the dreaded “hangry” feeling can start to set in. When you finally do eat, it’s not uncommon to ignore your satiety cues, overeat, and feel guilty or physically uncomfortable afterwards. Not to mention, your body isn’t going to get the full benefit from exercise without proper nutrition before and after. My advice? Avoid skipping meals and grab a Three-Part Snack in between: something with high-quality lean protein, healthy fats, and fiber from carbohydrates to stay full and satisfied.
Don’t be afraid of fat: Something I look for when analyzing someone’s nutrition pattern is whether they consume enough fat or not, specifically omega-3 fatty acids. Found in fish, olive oil, avocado, and nuts, these healthy fats have been shown to reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol, and promote brain health. If that’s not enough self-care for you, omega-3’s are also linked to reducing depression and anxiety as well as improvements in mood.
The 80/20 Mindset: Adopting an 80/20 mindset can be a way to introduce more equilibrium into your nutrition. This mindset revolves around sticking to your nutrition-related goals and feeling totally “on it” 80% of the time while indulging mindfully during the remaining 20% of the time. The problem with having a 100% mindset is that it leaves no room for being human, which again inevitably leads to stress and guilt. So let your body have a little balance with what you eat, and trust me, your mind, heart, and soul will thank you.
Another tangible way to find balance with good nutrition to support self-care is with a mindful eating practice. According to The Center for Mindful Eating, this practice is intended to bring about an awareness of our actions, thoughts, feelings, motivations, and insight into the roots of health and contentment. It makes you more aware of your internal and external environments surrounding the activity of eating, and it brings about a balance between pleasure associated with food and good nutrition in order to benefit the body’s overall metabolic processes. If that sounds a little woo woo for you, there are really concrete ways to incorporate a Mindful Eating practice to reap the benefits. Trying to acknowledge your responses to food without judgement and using your awareness of how hungry or satisfied you are to guide your eating decisions are ways to start. The key here is to listen to your body. This takes practice, so try to avoid beating yourself up if it proves to be more difficult than you thought it would.
Take your time and set yourself up.
How many of us eat our lunch in front of our computer or phone and finish before we even know what we ate? When you’re eating while distracted or on the go, you’re not doing much for yourself in the way of self-care. My advice? Unplug, slow down, and chew your food. This allows you to optimize the digestive process, reduce that uncomfortable “too full bloat” feeling, and actually listen to your hunger and satiety cues to avoid over-eating and mindless snacking. Removing distractions also allows you to enjoy your meal, which research shows may help you absorb nutrients more effectively. That’s what I call self-care.
Part of having good nutrition practices is also not ignoring your appetite. Eating when you’re hungry… a novel idea, right? If self-care is about protecting your well-being, then taking the time to make sure you’re properly nourished and fueled throughout the day goes right along with that. Whether that starts with meal planning, meal prepping, grocery shopping, cooking, or again, taking the time to eat a meal in peace, it all lends itself to better energy, a better mood, less stress, and better health. In fact, going one step further, a 2017 study showed how a healthful diet plays a huge role in treating major depressive episodes. (4) The power of good nutrition is amazing, isn’t it?
To make sure you’re set up for success, I recommend stocking your kitchen with essentials so it’s easier to make a nourishing meal even when you’re tired (which, as business owners, we usually are). Think brown rice, whole wheat pasta, no-sodium added canned beans, tomatoes, and tuna, oats, whole grain crackers, frozen fruit and veggies, broth, and frozen lean protein. Again, this does wonders when it comes to stress reduction and making sure you stay on track with your goals for good nutrition.
As women in business, let’s take the time to prioritize ourselves with a little more self-care. Along with all the ways we do this, I encourage you to listen to your bodies, be kind with the way you speak to it and the way we feed it, and take time to give it some love with sustainable, balanced practices that promote good nutrition. And know that seeking external support for this does not reflect a lack of ability, but rather a strong sense of self-awareness of the type of self-care that you personally need.
Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. The impact of stress on bodyfunction: A review. EXCLI J. 2017;16:1057-1072. doi:10.17179/excli2017-480
The Integrative RD, Spring 2012, Volume 14, Issue 4; Foley J, “Nutrition's Role in Detoxification,” DIFM, 2017.
White BA, Horwath CC, Conner TS. Many apples a day keep the blues away – Daily experiences of negative and positive affect and food consumption in young adults. BR J HEALTH PSYCHOL. 2013;18(4):782-798. doi:10.1111/bjhp.12021
Jacka FN, O’Neil A, Opie R, et al. A randomized controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). MBC MED. 2017;15:23. doi:10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y.