Healthy eating and active living can lead to:
- Elevated mood, energy levels and self-esteem,
- Reduced anxiety and stress,
- Reduced risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer, and
- Healthy hormone levels.
Despite the constant changes in the world around us, one aspect of our lives that remains a constant is the need to nourish our bodies with real, wholesome food.
This can often seem beyond our control when we’re busy running between meetings and trying to stay on top of our workload. Having worked in the legal field for over ten years, I’m all too aware of the challenges that busy lawyers face.
However, small changes, done consistently, can make a really big difference. I’ve set out below some practical diet and lifestyle tips that you can try to build into your daily routine. I’m not suggesting you try everything all at once (unless you want to, of course), but I would encourage you to pick one or two goals and focus on those until they become part of your new routine.
Then, in a few weeks’ time, add in another goal or two. By continuing to do this over a period of time, you’ll have created healthier habits without being too overwhelmed.
Little red courgette
Let’s start with some basic lifestyle tips that can really make a difference to how we function and feel.
Go for a brisk 15-minute walk after eating. A 2022 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine found that a brisk postprandial walk can help manage our blood sugar. This is important for our energy levels, concentration, balanced mood – but it can also help prevent developing type-2 diabetes. So, even if you’re eating your lunch ‘al desko’, try to work this in daily after you’ve eaten.
Avoid becoming ‘hangry’. In 2015, ‘hangry’ was added to the Oxford Dictionary. It means “bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger”. Filling our bodies with real food in a timely fashion will provide us with stable energy, increased focus, and improved mood.
Aim to have three balanced meals per day and one or two snacks (if needed). It’s a good idea to have a couple of items in your desk drawer, such as a tub of nuts and seeds, fruit, nut bars, oat cakes, or even a jar of peanut or almond butter.
Get adequate sleep. Aim to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Sleep deprivation leads to poor memory, lower motivation, and impaired cognitive performance. Studies have also shown that lack of sleep can alter our appetite hormones, leaving us craving sugary junk foods the next day. Sound familiar?
If you’re struggling to sleep at night, consider your caffeine intake during the day. Caffeine has a half-life of approximately six hours, so this means that six hours after you’ve had a cup of coffee, half that caffeine is still circulating in your blood stream.
Typically, one or two coffees early in the day won’t cause a difficulty for most people, but if you’re drinking more than that and not sleeping well, consider reducing your intake or swapping out some coffees for herbal tea or a glass of water. Some people are genetically more sensitive to caffeine than others, so it’s important to listen to your body.
Just beet it
Now let’s consider how we are actually fuelling our bodies. All too often, people are grabbing a coffee and a scone on the run for breakfast, wolfing down a sandwich at lunch, followed by maybe another coffee and chocolate in the afternoon – just to get them through that final stretch.
This can leave us in a vicious cycle of sugar highs followed by sugar crashes – this is often referred to as the ‘blood-sugar rollercoaster’. Our bodies really dislike this and, over time it can lead to type-2 diabetes, poor cardiovascular health, low mood, and hormone imbalances.
Speaking of hormones, March is Endometriosis Awareness Month, and these tips are especially important for women trying to balance their hormones. This inflammatory condition is estimated to effect one in ten women in Ireland, and diet and lifestyle changes can provide great symptom relief for some women.
Peas be with you
Try to avoid consuming too much sugar – sweets, chocolate, ice-cream, sweets, refined carbohydrates (such as scones, buns, cakes, pastries, donuts, biscuits, etc). These foods are going to have a negative impact on your physical and mental health. It’s not that you can’t have them at all, but they shouldn’t be replacing meals or proper snacks. They are treats, and should be consumed in moderation and only on occasion.
Ditch the fizzy drinks – these are literally just liquid sugar, and can play havoc with your metabolism, hormones, and weight. Did you know that a can of cola contains about nine teaspoons of sugar? Not many people would add that amount to their tea or coffee, so think twice about drinking it in the form of a fizzy drink.
For an average adult, the World Health Organisation recommends a maximum of ten teaspoons of sugar per day, so one can of cola is almost your maximum sugar intake limit for the entire day. Now, I can already hear some of you proudly saying that you choose sugar-free or ‘zero’ drinks.
They don’t contain sugar, but they are still very sweet – so why is that? They contain a chemical called aspartame, which is an artificial sweetener, and this isn’t good news for our bodies either, as it has been linked to symptoms such as headaches, migraines, anxiety, and digestive upset.
Reduce processed food – this means food products that have a long list of ingredients you probably can’t pronounce and have never heard of. Ultra-processed foods typically contain no nutrients, and are high in sugars and fats that are bad for our health, such as trans or hydrogenated fats.
These foodstuffs are not well tolerated by the body and, if consumed in large amounts over time, can lead to feeling sluggish, metabolic issues, and cognitive decline. Instead, choose wholefoods in their natural state that don’t have an ingredients list, like fruit, vegetables, nuts, oats, eggs, fish, etc.
Be mindful of how much alcohol you are consuming – alcohol has been shown to negatively affect our immune system and hormones, increase inflammation, and lead to weight gain – not exactly what we want. If you find yourself needing a drink to help de-stress, then it might be worth exploring other ways to help you relax.
And now that I’ve killed your buzz, here are some easily actionable tips for success in your daily food routine. These foods are packed with powerful nutrients and beneficial compounds to help our bodies fight disease and function at their best.
How do you like them apples?
‘Eat the rainbow’ in fruit and vegetables – each colour will provide different nutrients. By always including a variety of colour on your plate at each meal, you get a wide range of vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients (which help protect against disease).
A wide range of plant-based foods will also help support a healthy microbiome, which is the collection of microbes that live in our digestive system. These microbes help support our bodies in terms of mood, cholesterol, immune health, and digestive health, and are not to be overlooked. Try stir-fries, curries, soups, partially warm salads, or snack on vegetable sticks with some hummus.
Include essential fatty acids in your diet – as the name suggests, these fats are essential to our health because our bodies cannot make them, and they must be consumed through our diet or by supplementation. These fats will help reduce inflammation and support our cardiovascular system, memory, and cognition.
Our brain is made of about 60% fat, our nerve coverings are made from fat, and so is the wall of every cell in our body – we’re talking trillions of cells here, so there is a high demand for it. The richest source of essential fatty acids is oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
They can also be found to a lesser degree in avocados, olives, flax seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, and extra virgin olive oil (in dressings). Try buying a selection of nuts and seeds (unroasted and unsalted) and grab a handful for a snack with a piece of fruit.
Choose complex carbohydrates – this means swapping any white rice, pasta, or bread for brown. This will give you a higher amount of fibre and, generally, less sugar. Fibre is important for hormone balance, cholesterol levels, and digestive health. Complex carbohydrates help give us a steadier, more long-lasting supply of energy compared with their refined (white) counterparts.
Hydration should not be underestimated – dehydration can promote inflammation, fatigue, and a sluggish digestive system. Get a refillable water bottle and keep it on your desk so that you can monitor how much you’ve had. Aim for one-and-a-half to two litres each day.
Add fresh lemon, lime, cucumber or mint leaves to jazz it up if you’re struggling. Herbal teas will count towards this amount, which can be nice during the colder months, and these are available in a wide range of flavours, so find something that tickles your taste buds.
I’ve only just scratched the surface of some of the ways that diet and lifestyle can help, but never forget that one of the most powerful tools to improve your health and performance is located at the end of your fork.
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing – as mentioned above, small changes done consistently can make a big difference. For now, maybe it’s eating more vegetables, or simply having an extra glass of water each day, but I would encourage you to start by making just one change, and that might make all the difference.
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