You’ve most likely heard the advice from someone in your life, be it a family member, a close friend, a coworker, your favorite yoga instructor, a barista at your local coffee shop, or even your nutritionist or family practitioner: “Try practicing more self-care.” But, what does that mean? What does self-care look like? How do you go about infusing not only your day but also your body, with self-care? While self-care is incredibly important, these questions are completely legitimate.
The first thing to note is that self-care looks different to everyone. Your friend may enjoy a good round of cycling at the gym, while you may prefer a good book and a glass of wine. With that said, there is one form of self-care that is essential to overall happiness that everyone should practice: infusing your body with essential nutrients.
Yes! Eating healthy and right is a wonderful and important form of self-care.
Easier said than done, right. Let’s take a deep dive into caring for yourself through nutrition, what that looks like, and simply understanding the root of self-care in the first place.
Why is Self-Care So Important?
Before navigating the world of self-care through nutrition, it’s probably a good idea to understand the core definition and goal of general self-care.
A self-care article published by Harvard Health Publishing at Harvard Medical School describes self-care in a simple, succinct way: “Self-care means paying attention to and supporting one’s own physical and mental health.” On top of that, the article adds that self-care also happens to be “a big part of treatment for many physical and mental health disorders.” Basically, self-care is a core pillar of overall health.
Without attending to one’s own bodily, emotional, and mental needs, how can that same person attend to anything or anyone else?
While self-care is a pillar to overall health, within self-care there are certain guidelines that can help you find total balance. These included obtaining a regular eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, — not getting enough sleep “causes irritability, poor cognition, impaired reflexes and response time (think: car accidents!),” and has also been linked to increased depression and anxiety — find ways to be physically active — “exercise busts stress, boosts the mood, and elevates our energy level, not to mention the heart health benefits” — calming your mind through personalized techniques — these may include meditating, yoga, “knitting, baking, walking, swimming [or basically] anything quiet and peaceful, when one can take deep breaths and be calmly, enjoyably focused.”
The last pillar is one that holds up all the rest – eating well. The self-care article from Harvard puts it best:
“The mountain of studies supporting a whole-foods, plant-based diet for our health is almost as large as the exercise one. Stay away from inflammatory, sugar-spiking, insulin-releasing foods like processed carbohydrates (think all added sugars and anything made with flour). Aim for things that grew on plants or trees. The more colorful the fruits or vegetables, the more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants they have and the healthier they are. Vitamin pills and other supplements just don’t work as well. We don’t have to be perfect, but the more plant-based our diets are, the better.”
The Myth of Self-Care Reducing Productivity
Right about now you might be saying that this is easier said than done. There are so many expectations and tasks that we must complete in a day and the only way to do this is to just keep chugging forward. This is especially true in American society in which sleeping less, working more hours, and taking fewer vacation days is the norm and even encouraged. In an article published by The Nation, research has found that “while [Americans aren’t] at the top of the list of developed countries with excessive work hours — Mexico, Greece, South Korea, and nine others are higher — Americans work about 20 more hours each year than the average.” In fact, about 10 million Americans clock in at 60 hours a week!
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the norms that our society places on our day-to-day life. We forget to take a breath of fresh air, look around, and question whether this really is the best way to go about it or if there is another way to live a full, successful, and happy life.
Here’s a quick opportunity for you! Right this moment. As you’re reading this article. How you ask? We’re going to take a quick look at another culture that does it differently and yet more efficiently. Take a deep breath and take in a different way of living that involves immense self-care and enjoyment of life!
Let’s take a look at Norway.
Based off of the second annual Global Productivity report conducted by Exper Market, it was found that “people of Norway are expected to work for only 27 hours every week–one of the shortest in the world–and still they have ranked as the second most productive country in the world by a survey.” They came in second, beaten by Luxembourg. On top of the fact that they work the least amount of hours and are one of the most productive countries, “Norwegians form the happiest workforce in Europe.”
Part of this is due to decreased work hours and increased vacation hours, but it also has a lot to do with the fact that the Danish people put a huge emphasis on self-care. They even have a word to describe the act: hygge.
Hygge — generally pronounced hue-guh — “is a Danish word used when acknowledging a feeling or moment, whether alone or with friends, at home or out, ordinary or extraordinary as cozy, charming or special.” Yet, hygge is much more than that. Hygge encompasses the practice of slowness “and the ability to not just be present – but recognize and enjoy the present.”
You don’t have to be Danish in order to practice hygge — or any form of self-care — but it does take some adjustment and it will require you to reprioritize time and tasks differently.
Where do you start? One of the most effective and productive self-care routines to begin is healthy eating!
The Relationship Between Self-Care and Nutrition
Many people automatically turn to physical activities or routines to practice self-care. Yet, in order to truly appreciate the moment you set aside to care for yourself, you should probably feel good, energized, and be aware of these moments.
If you haven’t been convinced to remove unhealthy foods — such as ultra-processed foods, processed foods, and sugar-laden products — from your diet, here are a couple of statistics that may change your mind. Per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “unhealthy eating habits [contribute] to the obesity epidemic in the United States: about one-third of U.S. adults (33.8%) are obese and approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese.” Yet, even if you’re seemingly healthy, eating “a poor diet is associated with major health risks that can cause illness and even death,” such as “heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain types of cancer.”
On the flip side, integrating whole, plant-based foods into a diet — such as an array of colorful veggies, whole grains, and fruits — has the opposite effect. Changing a diet to meet these needs has shown a markedly decreased risk of chronic disease risk and an increase in overall health. Effecting a balanced, whole food, plant-based diet can increase brain health, help maintain a healthy weight, lower cardiovascular markers — such as blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar — and has even been shown to reduce the risk of cancer. That’s not all! Practicing self-care through nutrition is also great for mental health. Reducing processed products and integrating plant-based foods has been linked to decreased depression symptoms and lowered levels of anxiety.
4 Ways to Practice Nutritional Self-Care
I’m positive that this is not the first time you’ve heard this advice. More and more research is beginning to come to light regarding the dangerous effects that sugar consumption has on the body. One of the most propelling pieces on the subject was a book published by Gary Taubes called The Case Against Sugar. Taubes writes, “sugar’s rapid rise to prominence in the Western diet, starting in the mid-19th century, … coincided with a sudden outbreak of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.”
The science is a bit more complicated. In short, added sugars — as well as unstable vegetable oils that are present in almost all processed food items — have the ability to destroy the nutritional “code” on lipoproteins. You’ve most likely heard of lipoproteins, but you probably don’t know just how important these structures are. Lipoproteins are vessels that carry cholesterol and “other molecules, such as triglycerides (fats), phospholipids and fat-soluble vitamins” through the bloodstream and get these essential nutrients where they are most needed in the body. Basically, lipoproteins are the coordinators for nutrients once they’ve been consumed and broken down. Along with many other negative health effects — unwanted weight gain, increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, and even increased cellular aging and skin aging — sugar helps destroy the code that gets these essential lipoprotein packages where they need to be.
Instead of reaching for that cookie, opt for a dark-chocolate and/or berry-rich treat such as these Homemade Chocolate Chips, Hazelnut Chocolate Parfait, and Peanut Butter and Jelly Cups. Dark chocolate (70 percent or higher) is filled with antioxidants and is low in sugar making it an excellent plant-based sweet-treat alternative! Berries are low on the glycemic index meaning they offer a slower release of natural sugar. They won’t make your blood sugar spike and yet they are still a sweet treat!
The only way to truly see how carbohydrates affect humans is by looking long-term and, since nutrition is currently in a revolutionary period, this is more of a waiting game for all of us. With that said, the one thing most all nutritionist, dietitians, and medical practitioners can agree on is that refined carbohydrates should be avoided at all costs.
Refined carbohydrates — also called simple carbohydrates — refer to “sugars and refined grains that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients,” and include popular processed food items such as “white bread, pizza dough, pasta, pastries, white flour, white rice, and many breakfast cereals.” What’s the issue with these products? Refined carbohydrates are digested “quickly and their high glycemic index” floods your bloodstream with sugar causing “unhealthy spikes in blood sugar levels.” Refined carbohydrates are also super low in fiber and micronutrients, which are essential for a healthy body leading to the term “empty calories” — basically, you’re consuming calories that aren’t offering any nutritional value.
Refined carbohydrates are basically the opposite of nutritional self-care.
Instead, focus on healthy carbohydrates referred to as complex carbs such as legumes, rice, and starchy veggies! Complex carbs also happen to be a staple in plant-based diets such as this Black Bean, Quinoa, and Walnut Loaf, this Kidney Bean and Lentil Curry, or this Sweet Potato Veggie Biryani.
I’ve spent the last few years dedicated to writing about the new discoveries in nutrition and this is one that I feel may be one of the most important focuses on overall health and nutritional self-care.
Your gut is teeming with bacteria that are incredibly beneficial to various aspects of your health. This is called your gut microbiota and it’s made up of “tens of trillions of microorganisms, including at least 1000 different species of known bacteria with more than 3 million genes (150 times more than human genes).” Each of our gut microbiota are individual to the person they live within, meaning your microbiota are “like an individual identity card.” Recent studies have found that the health of your gut microbiota — referring to a large diversity and count of bacteria — has been linked to bodily and mental health.
The relationship between gut microbiota and health was most stunning in recent research looking at the connection between the brain and the health of this bacteria. In fact, the recent discoveries that link these two parts of the human body “could lead to new treatments for obesity, eating disorders, and even depression and autism – all of which have been linked to a malfunctioning gut.”
Therefore, eating foods that boost gut health may improve current ailments, while also boosting mental health. This is the perfect mixture for those seeking to promote self-care through nutrition. Foods that boost gut health include fiber-rich plant-based products — such as these Creamy Sweet Potato Noodles with Ginger Tempeh — probiotic-rich plant-based foods — such as these Potato Kimchi Pancakes or this Raw Purple Sauerkraut — and fermented foods — such as this Wakame Soup or these Tempeh Meatballs.
I can’t repeat myself enough when it comes to boosting intake of healthy plant-based fats! While increasing fat intake isn’t for everyone — there are certain conditions that can be worsened by fat — for most of us, healthy plant-based fats are an essential part of a healthy body. Healthy fats have many health benefits! They can decrease bodily inflammation, increase nutrient absorption, boost brain health, increase liver health, and have even been linked to a decrease in depression and anxiety symptoms.
So, what are healthy plant-based fats?
These include monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, small amounts of saturated fat, as well as omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids and they happen to be present in many tasty plant-based foods. First on the list is extra-virgin olive oil — such as this Chocolate Olive Oil Cake — and coconut oil — such as these simple Blueberry Scones. Nuts and seeds are a great source of these healthy fats such as in this Walnut Bread or this Vanilla Bean Chia Pudding. With that said, the king of healthy fats is avocado! This delicious, creamy fruit offers a plethora of healthy fats including monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated, omega-3, and omega-6 all in just one skinned avocado! Plus, they are great raw or mixed in with almost any recipe!
We hope this encourages you to take a nutritional approach when it comes taking care of yourself. To help you out, we also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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