We’ve all heard the adage, “You are what you eat,” meaning good quality food is an important component of overall health. A healthy diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, fiber and lean protein, has been linked to healthy aging and reduced risk of chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and colorectal, breast and lung cancer. However, these long-term benefits are not typically effective for sustained day-to-day motivation to stick with a healthy diet.
A healthy diet is also associated with enhanced wellbeing, such as positive emotional states of joy, attentiveness and feeling energized. These short-term effects may last a day or two but recognizing immediate benefits of a healthy diet can provide the means to sustain healthy eating. You can enjoy favorite foods and still eat healthy. Some simple steps include adding more vegetables to dishes you like, pairing fruit with cheese and adding fruit to the plate if you are not a fan of vegetables.
Eating slowly gives your brain time to receive signals from the fullness hormone, leptin and reduce the hunger hormone, ghrelin. Leptin makes you feel full and lowering ghrelin curbs hunger. Portion control methods include using the palm of your hand to gauge portion size and use of smaller plates. Incorporating mindfulness, the practice of being fully present in each moment, into meals and snacks has been shown to help lower calorie consumption and promote weight loss or weight maintenance.
The Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid1 is an excellent guide to healthy eating.
In addition to eating right, communing with nature is an important component of well-being. Did you ever wonder why the lake side of a motel fills up first, or why having the windows open is preferred over having them closed? It’s the pull of nature!
You can enjoy the health benefits of nature, like stress relief and improved mood by walking with a friend outside at lunchtime, especially if the sun is out and you are near green space. You might find that your creativity and problem-solving ability for the afternoon has been sparked, as the sunlight keeps serotonin levels up for more energy and ability to focus. Your bones will become stronger, thanks to vitamin D produced by the sun. Also, vitamin D, along with phytoncides energize T-cells to help fight inflammation and infection.
An added bonus of being in nature is that you may sleep better since the outdoors helps set your sleep cycle. Cells in your eyes need enough light to get your body’s internal clock working right. Early morning sunlight in particular seems to help people get to sleep at night. You may find this to be more important as you age. When you’re older, your eyes are less able to absorb light, and you’re more likely to have problems with sleep.
Being outdoors provides the opportunity to be with others during a pandemic, since you can safely keep physical distance outdoors. This sense of community with nature and with others is important for mental health.
Dr. Cathy Bodnar and Stephanie Leibfritz are two of 40 local residents who earned a certificate in the science of wellbeing in 2018. Bodnar is medical director for the Midland County Health Department and Leibfritz is community health manager for MidMichigan Health.