Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme for 2019 was focused on body image and the impact it has on our mental health.

Shocking statistics published by the Mental Health Foundation revealed that in a survey of 4,505 adults and 1,118 teenagers, one in five adults felt shame, and over a third of teenagers (37%) felt upset about their body image. They also report that ‘Higher body dissatisfaction is associated with a poorer quality of life, psychological distress and the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders.’

Although these trends are shocking, they are nothing new. Social media and glossy magazines feature perfect bodies and unattainable sizes for most average people. We need to be kinder to ourselves and others, and love the skin we are in.

Stop Dieting!

We know that dissatisfaction with our own body shape or size can lead to disordered eating, yoyo dieting and bingeing, but the reverse is also true. When we feel better about ourselves, we tend to make healthier choices. Nutrition is just one part of the jigsaw for good mental health.

If we can get more connected to the food we eat and value nourishing food for the potential impact it can have on our mental, physical and emotional health, we are more likely to make healthier choices. If we look at food as the sum of its calories, or are obsessed with how much fat or sugar is in the food we eat, we can start to set up an unhealthy attitude to nutrition, so that if we eat something that is outside our ‘allowed’ foods, or a food that we think of as ‘sinful’, ‘bad’, or ‘fattening’ we feel guilty, out of control and then make unhealthy choices, because we feel we have failed. This is not a healthy way to live.

When I talk to people about food and nutrition, I want them to get excited about how food can make them feel, not guilty about making the ‘wrong’ choice. Rather than thinking about food as ‘good’, or ‘bad’; ‘healthy’ or unhealthy’, we need to look at the bigger picture. If most of the food we eat is nourishing and packed with vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, protein and fibre, then there is room to enjoy the occasional treat. Not as a reward, but as part of a balanced, healthy diet.

Simple ideas to help

  • Keep a food diary. At the end of the week, look at the diary and write down 3 things that you do well. Maybe you eat 5 a day most days, chose high fibre foods, or cook all your meals from scratch. Sometimes looking at what we eat over a week allows us to take a step back and can give us a better insight into how well balanced our diet is, rather than obsessed with every food or meal that we consume.
  • Forget about the numbers. Stop counting calories. Instead, look at what is on your dinner plate. Do you have half your plate packed with vegetables? Have you included a plan size portion of protein (eggs, meat, fish, pulses, etc.)? Is there a low GI carbohydrate (brown rice, new or sweet potato, wholemeal noodles, etc.)? This will help you get an idea of what a balanced plate should look like and start you thinking in a slightly different way about how to eat well.
  • Get connected to the food on your plate. When you are planning what to pack into your lunchbox, or put on your dinner plate, take a moment to consider how important that food is to help nourish you, energise you and feel your body and mind. It is powerful stuff.

Please ask for help if you need to. Talk to family and friends, colleagues at work or your GP. There is help available. Both www.inspirewellbeing.org and www.aware-ni.org are good places for advice too.

This blog post first appeared as my column in The Irish News on Saturday 18 May 2019.