Thursday 4 March is University Mental Health Day, which brings students and staff from around the country together to make sure mental health is prioritised and no student feels alone. This year, University Mental Health Day seems more important than ever. Not only because of the exceptional year we have all endured, but for the exciting year to come with a hopeful return to some sort of normality.

The main contributors of stress at university have been attributed to isolation and health-related anxiety over the last year. When moving to university for the first time, joining student societies, sports teams or cultural activities have been a common solution to prevent feelings of loneliness in the past. However, social distancing guidelines have not made this possible and have caused us to become anxious about our subsequent physical health and the health of our families which we have been restricted from seeing as often as we would like. As a result, it is important for us to focus on factors we can control to enhance our mental health. This article will highlight some nutritional advice that we can all use to ensure this can be achieved.

The importance of routine to our diet

Routines are often underestimated but can be a powerful tool to promote health and wellbeing through structure and organisation. People who do not have a routine often report unhealthier eating patterns. For example, if grocery shopping is not scheduled, convenient and unhealthy substitutes are often selected as a substitute. Similarly, if we do not have a set cooking time, it is more difficult to prepare healthy, substantial meals and we habitually resort to fast food meals. Setting aside a time for meals is also important for breakfast as it stimulates energy and fuels our body for the day, while also reducing our need to snack throughout the day. So, if you often skip breakfast because you wake up late, try setting an alarm slightly earlier than usual to make sure you have time!

Routines can also be used to keep active and improving our sleep which are both key factors in improving mental health.  Introducing a routine to improve just one of these factors can enhance cognitive behaviour and energy levels, so why not try incorporating a routine to optimise mental health?

Restricting yourself

Over the last year, we have experienced a completely different lifestyle and weight gain might have crept up on us. However, as per the latest government announcement, we are hopeful that limitations on social contact will be lifted by 21 June, with some hospitality expected to open as soon as 12 April. So, with the easing of social restrictions, you might be thinking it is time to restrict yourself to achieve your ideal ‘summer body’. But, here’s why restricting yourself might not be such a good idea:

  • Looking for a quick fix for weight loss is not sustainable – you will be in the same situation once you stop restricting
  • Restriction can lead to binge eating following cessation – you will be more likely to overeat
  • The words ‘summer body’ have a negative association – good appearance does not equate to optimal health, particularly mental health
  • Most restrictive diets have little to no fibre or protein – so you will end up malnourished
  • Eliminating large food groups, such as carbohydrates, will reduce your source of energy.

Restricting yourself will lead to a restrict-binge cycle and will lead to a fluctuation in weight, which is the opposite of a balanced, healthy diet. Instead of a restrictive diet, following a sustainable diet will be more beneficial in the long-term which will form positive, healthy habits.

Sustainable diet

Developing a holistic approach means that you can eat everything, as long as it is in moderation. Getting rid of the idea that foods are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ will help you form a positive relationship with food. Having a diet largely made up of fruit, vegetables, cereals, grains, and nuts but allowing yourself to enjoy sweet and savoury snacks or fizzy drinks on the odd occasion will protect your mental health. Ultimately, we tend to eat food that we like which provides enjoyment and happiness. So, there is no need to follow a restrictive diet to improve our mental health. Rather, eat foods that you enjoy but do not over-indulge, make sure you get an adequate supply of fruits and vegetables and stay hydrated!