A dietician’s tips on how to manage stress and anxiety with food

Woman having a healthy snack.
Woman having a healthy snack.
Getty Images

Uncertainty about the future and job security, losing family and friends, limiting socialising and interaction with others - these are just some of the things that have negatively impacted our mental health during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

In the midst of all of this, dietician Mbali Mapholi reminds us that good nutrition plays a big role in preserving positive mental health.

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“What we eat and drink plays a role in the management of stress and anxiety," she says. 

"Mental health is as important as physical health and a dietitian can help you manage your mental health with proper nutrition that is affordable, accessible to you which you will enjoy as a sole intervention or to support other mental health interventions."

Holding two degrees from the University of KwaZulu Natal: BSc. Dietetics and PGDip Dietetics and having worked in both the private and public health sectors since 2012, Mbali has vast knowledge on nutrition and the role it plays in one’s overall mental wellbeing.

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She gives us 5 tips on how to manage stress and anxiety through nutrition.

1. Consume caffeine wisely

"It is the 21st century thing that most people, especially the working class, replace breakfast with coffee. Coffee runs have become a modern trend, but high levels of caffeine consumption can increase anxiety and nervousness and can also decrease the production of the feel-good chemical serotonin in the body, causing a depressed mood. Consume caffeine in moderation and avoid using coffee as a replacement for a proper breakfast," Mapholi says.

2. Reduce or manage your alcohol intake

"Many people temporally or permanently use alcohol to numb the pain. Yes, alcohol may make one mellow for a short while but it changes levels of serotonin and the neurotransmitters in the brain, which can worsen anxiety. And when the alcohol wears off, you may feel even more anxious. It is important to drink alcohol in moderation: one unit for women and two units for men each day," she adds.

3. Reduce your refined sugar intake

"Whether it is sugar sweetened beverages or foods with added sugar; the high consumption of these foods can mess with our blood glucose control. Added sugars cause your blood sugar to go on a roller coaster ride of spikes and once it crashes, your energy also goes up and down. The drop in blood sugar levels may cause mood swings and anxiety levels can also spike. This is a phenomenon observed both in adults and children," she confirms.

4. Do not skip meals

Mapholi says that during times of stress and anxiety, we either overindulge in foods that are of poor nutrition or not eat at all due to poor appetite. This can worsen anxiety and stress, due to nutrient deficiencies that may arise.

"Eating such poor nutrient ‘comfort foods’ during these times is acceptable but neglecting nutrient dense foods is not advisable," she says.

5. Keep Hydrated

"During stressful times it is extremely easy to go the whole day without drinking water. Dehydration may worsen stress and anxiety. Aim to drink at least 6 glasses a day, if possible be prepared and carry a water bottle around. Eat foods that have a higher water content like fruits and vegetables to keep hydrated and avoid foods that cause dehydration such as extremely high-salt foods."

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