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Cozying around a crackling log fire amidst the laughter of friends, eating a good old fashioned, hearty English roast. Perusing the Champs–Elysées devouring a flaky, freshly baked and buttery croissant. Watching one of the last sunsets of summer, sharing an array of picnic foods and prosecco with loved ones.
These are moments of awe that punctuate our lives. Moments that have the potential to take us to a higher place of being. Moments for us to drink in and absorb. Food is about so much more than just taste. It is about connection, community, culture, celebration and most importantly, enjoyment. And to be privileged enough to savour a diversity of foods is one of life’s greatest pleasures. The happiness that this brings cannot be undervalued.
I often wonder, in the increasingly mass produced and modernised world we are now living in, if we are losing the true essence of food. Everywhere we go, we are bombarded by the alluring offer of ultra-processed foods (UPFs). Beautiful and colourful products produced in factories and packaged for a long shelf-life, line our supermarkets, cafes, shops, petrol and service stations. They are ubiquitous and we are overwhelmed by choice. It is very difficult to escape how readily available and (often) inexpensive these mass-produced products are.
Consequently, they are becoming a standard component of our daily food intake, and for some, the only source of intake. The issue here is these products are heavily laden with sugar, artificial sweeteners, salt, saturated and trans fats, and a plethora of weird and wonderful chemical additives. Many of which have the potential to give our brain a short-lived dopamine hit, only for this blissful feeling to come crashing down half an hour later. And then we crave more, which makes this a highly addictive cycle. Manufacturers are clever, and exceedingly profitable as a result.
UPFs should come with some level of health warning. They play havoc with our gut health, send our blood sugar levels into disarray and are almost devoid of the important nutrients (including fibre, antioxidants,
phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals) our body needs to thrive. When consumed all too regularly, these products have the potential to make us feel pretty grim and longer term, can cause our health to decline.
Conversely, ‘superfoods’, ‘miracle smoothies’ and ‘detox juices’ offer the guarantee of shedding half a stone in a fortnight. Diet culture lures us in with false promises, promoting a deprivation mentality. Which, of course, comes with a side serving of shame and misery if we veer off track even once. This advocates an unhealthy relationship with food and is quite frankly disheartening and disempowering. No joy can come from calorie counting or being a victim to the weighing scales.
Neither UPFs or diet culture are nurturing of our mental or physical wellbeing. The constant onslaught of enticingly packaged products lacking any kind of nutritional value. Or the world of restriction and food shaming, where we are spoon fed short-term solutions to solve all of our health problems. So, how can we take ownership of our health and happiness with the support of our daily diets?
It is important to eat with both well-being and enjoyment in mind. This is the recipe to a joyful and abundant relationship with food. And one of the greatest acts of self-care we could ever embrace is to learn more about how nutrition can serve our health. Because this brings about an awareness and with that knowledge comes more informed choices. It’s often not until we start filling our diets with more nutrient dense produce, do we realise how good food can make us feel. Eating to feel good rather than look good can be a liberating mindset. Focusing on feeding our mental health, rather than continuously aiming for aesthetic goals can be far more empowering. For the vast majority of us, the external rewards come as a natural consequence, as what we are doing here is nurturing our bodies from the inside out.
Research tells us that there is an undeniably close correlation between our diets and our mood. If we are eating predominantly whole and fresh foods – as nature intended – this will nourish our mental well-being no end. Better mental clarity, greater energy, a more stable mood and ultimately a more exuberant state of being. If we are feeling good, the motivation comes to continue and gradually this can become a lifestyle shift rather than a ‘diet’.
The Mediterranean style of eating is centred primarily around whole foods and the scientific literature tells us this is the golden ticket to
supporting our mental health with our diet. Communities living in the ‘Blue Zones’ illustrate this perfectly. This group of regions are home to some of the healthiest, oldest and happiest people in the world. They have close-knit
communities at the heart of their everyday lives, they advocate rest, they are active, have a deep-rooted sense of purpose and their diets centre around real food in abundance. Seasonal produce, plant-based foods, wholegrains, beans, legumes, natural fats, seafood, moderate amounts of meat and dairy with little or no processed products.
Whilst embracing this kind of lifestyle may not be wholly realistic or practical given the fast-paced and time poor existence many of us now live, we can glean inspiration from these communities. Small and sustainable habit changes is more of an achievable approach rather than this
incessant pressure to ‘overhaul’ our diets, which can be anxiety-inducing in itself. Yes, we want to be nurturing our mental well-being by making good food choices, but we also want to ensure that this does not become an additional stressor. Gradual lifestyle modifications that are enjoyable is the key to success. Progress over perfection wins every time. Above all, ensuring that the nutritious foods you are consuming are, quite simply those that you love to eat.
Which brings me onto my last point. And that is eating for enjoyment. Unadulterated, complete and utter enjoyment. All of the foods that bring you joy should always have a presence in your diet (nutritious or not) and I truly believe that this is a non-negotiable. This is food for the soul. If we restrict ourselves from eating certain foods, herein lies the deprivation mindset. And although this can be helpful (for some) to achieve short-term health goals, this way of living is not sustainable and does not bring happiness in the long-term. Within this, allowing ourselves the space and opportunity to carve out a healthy and wonderful relationship with food, which really is the cornerstone of eating for happiness.
This is the art of gentle nutrition. An approach that is not stressful or anxiety provoking. Eating all of the foods you enjoy alongside all of the foods that allow your well-being to flourish. The epitome of balance.