Supporting Mental Health during the Holidays through Nutrition

Healthy Food
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A guest post by Sydney Barrera, RD, LDN, and SunCloud Health’s Director of Nutritional Services 

The holidays are a sweet time, in more ways than one. It’s a time when friends and families gather to visit and share fond memories of the past year. It’s also a time filled with exciting, sweet treats, from pies to peppermint candies to chocolates; kids and adults alike are bombarded with seasonal sweets both in school and the workplace. While it’s important to fully enjoy the sweets of the season, it’s equally as important to be proactive with implementing necessary nutrient-rich foods into one’s diet to sustain the body through the hard winter months. These nutrients can help your body fight against colds and cases of the flu this season and can even positively impact your mental health.  

Read on to learn how certain nutritional elements in food have the power to support your mental health. We are sensitive to everyone’s unique relationship with food and eating habits, and seek to provide resources to help those with loved ones in need of support this season.  

Foods That Support Mental Health 

Many know there are crucial nutrients that our bodies need found in natural foods, such as fruits and vegetables. By eating a variety of these foods and others, we nourish our bodies while positively affecting brain and other body functions. Everyone’s body is unique and depending on physical activity, metabolism, and other genetic factors, the nutrients we need will vary. However, we all can benefit from eating certain foods during certain seasons, to help the body supplement what it requires in these times.  

For example, during seasons of high stress and not a lot of sunlight, like the holiday season, eating foods with certain nutritional values will offset seasonal symptoms and will support your immune system in fighting off germs. A great example of this is the natural vitamin C content in citrus. By eating citrus during the colder seasons, the immune system gets supported naturally.  

The following are more examples of beneficial nutrients and how they support both the mind and the body:  

Nutritional Element  Foods That Contain It   Positive Effects  
Omega 3s  Salmon/other fatty fish like tuna and herring.  

Flax and Chia seeds, edamame, walnuts.  

Improve brain activity and protect against cardiovascular disease.  
Folate  Dark leafy greens/vegetables, beans, peas, nuts and oranges, lemons, bananas, melons, and strawberries.  Encourages healthy cell growth and fights against anemia, depression, heart disease, cancer, and dementia.  
Magnesium   Found in dark chocolate, nuts and seeds, dark leafy vegetables, corn, peas, broccoli. 

Milk, yogurt, beans, and bananas.  

Supports heart health, bone health, metabolic health, sleep and stress management, the nervous system and energy production. 
Anti-Inflammatory Properties    Ginger root, turmeric, olive oil, berries, avocado, tomatoes, peppers, cherries, and grapes.  Reduces muscle soreness, lowers blood pressure, boosts cognitive functions, and soothes mental health.  

Practical Ways to Implement These Foods 

No one eats a perfect diet all the time, and many individuals struggle with unhealthy eating habits and disorders, making the holidays even more stressful as there are so many celebrations around food. Still, no matter your current relationship with food, it is possible to find joy and enjoyment in both sweet treats and nutrient-rich foods during the winter season, and to feel empowered to make the best decisions to improve your overall health. 

The most practical way to implement nutrient-rich foods into a diet is by making colorful plates. By adding colors like the greens of folate-rich dark leafy greens and broccoli, or even the bright colors of apples and oranges, this plate will soon be packed with powerful nutrients.  

How to Support a Loved One with Disordered Eating This Holiday Season  

For those who have a family member struggling with an eating disorder this season, it can be difficult to know how to best support them. While these nutrient-rich foods may be what your loved one needs, you may find it challenging to navigate encouraging them with their diet as they navigate their recovery. If a loved one has a difficult relationship with food, insisting they eat or that they implement these foods will be of no avail and may cause regression in their recovery progress. It’s best to lead by example and focus on making more colorful plates for yourself while encouraging the whole family to reap the benefits of this practice.  

“Put It in Neutral” 

When you have a struggling family member it’s important to support them by simplifying eating and thoughts and language around foods. Although nutrition is a science full of complexities, simplifying the process of eating can help individuals reclaim their love for food and drown out the “food noise” about what they should and should not do.  

Neutralizing language and perceptions around food types will help your loved one overcome their mental and emotional struggles when it comes to eating. Our society assigns values to food groups that lead to positive or negative associations and feelings upon eating or not eating these foods. For example, many believe ice cream and candy to be “bad foods” and fruits and vegetables to be “good foods” when, really, different foods simply have different nutritional values; they are not innately good or bad. Neutralizing thoughts about food will help everyone enjoy all foods throughout the holiday season. If someone hears or believes that eating a piece of pie after dinner is going to make them “gain weight,” then that food is labeled with a negative connotation. When we talk about food and bodies in a way that attaches the belief that gaining weight is a negative thing, this is fatphobic. Instead, let’s focus on teaching ourselves and our loved ones that individuals can live healthfully in different-size bodies. 

A Joined Effort Rewards All 

Implementing these changes may seem challenging at first, but ultimately, they will prove to be beneficial for the whole family. By leading by example and making an effort to change language and add more color to meals, you are helping yourself and your loved ones choose foods that sustain better overall health. For example, during a shared meal, many may plan to enjoy a leafy green salad as a side, or a broccoli casserole may be a staple. These dishes provide crucial nutrients, like folate and magnesium, while also providing an opportunity for everyone to enjoy the food and its benefits together. This, in turn, helps any struggling family members overcome unhealthy eating behaviors.  

Openly Offer Support 

Loved ones of those with eating disorders are often unsure of how to approach including them in shared meals or other activities during the holiday festivities. Remember, be openly supportive and curious. Ask how you can best support them or offer options to them. Support is going to look different for each individual, because eating disorders are complex. 

The most important part for someone who is struggling with an eating disorder is being able to start somewhere and introduce foods in a way that is safe and balanced. The best way to ensure your loved one is led through this process well is to utilize the support of a professional team. 

SunCloud Health Is Here to Help 

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, SunCloud Health has experts that help adults and adolescents achieve healing in their eating behaviors. Our Nutritional Services team works with clients to get to the root cause of eating behaviors and creates custom treatment plans for each individual that support their unique needs. At SunCloud, we are committed to helping individuals who are struggling with their relationship with food, find joy in eating again.  

Contact us today to schedule a consultation:  

About Sydney Barrera  

Sydney Barrera is a Registered Dietitian who is passionate about combining evidence-based nutrition research with a personalized approach. She is devoted to helping individuals reach their ultimate recovery by implementing specific goals and meal plans, and achieves this through dedicated treatment that allows for a better understanding of the intimate relationship between food and one’s body. With this understanding, she guides clients on their journeys toward health.  

Sydney has experience treating eating disorders and disordered eating patterns in residential, PHP, and outpatient levels of care.