Mood over food: the psychology of eating well

The start of any New Year comes with a bombardment of diet ads, weight loss resolutions and health pledges. The reality is that most of these fail, not because we don’t have the information we need to improve our heath, but because we’re not building the right habits to support our goals.

We were delighted to be joined by nutritionist and health psychologist Wendy Macartney for a recent roundtable on Mood over Food.

Wendy shared some great insights from her experience as a nutritionist, where she found that fewer than 10 per cent of people hit their weight loss goals. Her training and experience in health psychology has helped her to unpick the reasons for that and we’re pleased to be sharing some of her insights with you.

Watch out for misinformation

There’s a lot of false and misleading information about nutrition and diets out there. Ensure that you always check the root of any research. If you’re looking for high quality information on nutrition, try the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Most of us do know how to be healthy – we just don’t do it

What’s key is that we change the way we feel, so that we’re better able to take the steps we should and improve our health. Wendy’s advice is to “keep it small and keep it simple”, focusing on micro habits rather than drastic changes.

Start with your sleep

You might be wondering what sleep has to do with diet, but the answer might just be everything. Wendy’s health model is adapted from Professor Susan Michie’s approach to behaviour change. Mood, habit/motive and opportunity are key pillars, with sleep as the critical foundation. Putting sleep first is crucial, because it makes everything else easier.

If you’re looking to improve your sleep, try the following sleep hygiene behaviours:

  1. Avoid blue light. For at least an hour before bedtime, avoid the blue light emitted by phones, tablets and laptops. If you must use tech before bed, make sure you’re using the warm light settings.
  2. Stay clear of caffeine. It can take up to six hours for caffeine to work its way through your system, so make sure you’re avoiding coffee and other caffeinated drinks for at least six hours before bed.
  3. Eat early. A three hour gap between food and bedtime is recommended. It’s also helpful to avoid high protein meals right before bed, as they can make it harder to sleep.
  4. Keep high-energy exercise earlier in the day. Try not to do stimulating exercise late in the day as it may wake you up rather than tiring you out. However, gentle exercise such as yoga can be beneficial to sleep.
  5. Try to avoid alcohol before bed. It’s usually best to stop drinking four or five hours before bedtime. If that’s not possible, make sure you’re drinking a large glass of water for every alcoholic beverage.
  6. Rethink your lighting. Do you have bright or cold lighting in the rooms you’re using in the evening? Try swapping your bulbs out for warmer ones and keep lights low before bed.

Other top tips include going to bed at the same time every night, and trying to keep your sleeping space just for sleeping. Remember that habits take time to build – you should try one or two of these habits for a couple of weeks and then build on that. It takes at least six weeks of consistent effort for a habit to truly be formed.

Wendy also reminded us that any improvement is good when it comes to sleep. Don’t be discouraged if your average sleep only increases from five to five and a half hours, just because people say seven to eight should be your goal. Incremental gains are really important.

Better mood should lead to a better approach to food 

If you can improve your sleep, you’ll almost certainly be in a better frame of mind to address your eating habits too. The approach outlined here – to start small and build habits bit by bit – can help you to implement the healthy eating goals that you already have, but are struggling to achieve.

We hope that this has given you some food for thought (pardon the pun) – you can access the full event recording below. Do keep an eye out for our next roundtable, details to follow.

Access the full recording

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