What To Eat to Feel Great

Food, Mood, Healthy Eating, Mental Wellness, General Health

The month of November in the United States is the perfect month to think about what you eat on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. We turn our attention to the national holiday of Thanksgiving, and it isn’t uncommon to hear families planning for the holiday and weekend a month in advance.

Before I start talking about food, I need to put a few important pieces of information in front of you so that we’re on the same page and I cover my legal responsibilities. I am a Registered Nurse, an20141115_144128_520d not a Registered Dietician (RD). It’s in the scope of my practice as a licensed nurse in the State of Washington to talk generally about diet and nutrition, yet not specifically how to treat an individual’s medical needs through specific diets or meal planning. But I know what a protein, a carb, and a fat calorie is; I know the normal values of electrolytes, and I know how to apply general nutrition information to the general public. Finally, I have taken additional CEU’s (continued education units) as an RN to become an expert in the area of the treatment of Celiac Disease and food intolerances.

[Translation: we’re going to talk general stuff so I remain compliant under state law to not encroach on the scope and practice of RD’s, yo.]

Ready? Let’s talk about food!

Food and Mood

Food and mood are so intimately connected. In a single day, you can experience days where feeling good and feeling bad can be traced back to the simple of act of putting enough of the right foods at the right time into your mouth.

Miss your morning coffee? You might feel draggy all day, grumping at your co-workers, and sleepily gazing at your computer screen until break time. Grab a sugary doughnut instead of a balanced snack? You might experience 30 minutes of inspired, dreamy thoughts, followed by the sensation of having someone run over your legs when the sugar high bottoms out. Eat a balanced meal free of refined foods, trans fats, or excessive carbs, and you might experience a change of heart about a troublesome conflict you need need to face.

When someone says, “I’m having a really bad day,” my mind immediately tracks two paths. First, what is happening for this person that he or she has defined that day as going bad? Second, how has this person taken care of his or her physical needs up until this point, including meals and fluids, rest, and medications?

Would you be surprised to know how many times food and water are at least half of the stated reason why we say we’re having a bad day? Which one came first — the poor nutrition and hydration choices, or the difficult circumstances that influenced the person to make poor food and drink choices — is another question. For the purposes of this blog post, I want you to just consider how powerful your food and hydration choices are on your mood.

What To Eat To Feel Great

Shrimp, wilted greens, and sugar-free tomato sauce cooked with coconut oil.
Shrimp, wilted greens, and sugar-free tomato sauce cooked with coconut oil. Organic, no corn, soy, or preservatives.

Even after many years of having the Food Pyramid dictate the USRDA (recommended daily allowance) of the number of servings of grains, meat, dairy, nuts, and fruits and vegetables that make up the general 2,000 calorie daily diet, we’re still sorting out one basic piece of information about food that everyone needs to know:

You are an individual with specific needs based on your genetics, activity level, recovery needs, lifestyle, and metabolic rate. There is no “one size fits all” diet that works for everyone.

Determining what to eat to feel great can be a tricky detective game based on your individual response to foods. Some people are so reactive to caffeine, they cannot have it in even small amounts without untoward effects on heart rate and rhythm. Others use caffeine in timed doses in order to more effectively race in competitive sports, such as marathons and triathlon.

So how do you find out what to eat to feel great?

First, you can gather as much information as you can about what you currently eat and how and you feel after eating. About how much of each kind of food are you eating at meals? How long do you go between meals and snacks? When do you feel hungry again?Are there some foods that make you feel energetic, and others that make you feel sleepy? Do you ever have tummy aches or cramping, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea after eating certain foods? Remove everything that makes you feel sick or uncomfortable, and don’t eat them for at least two weeks.

Second, take a look at your individual nutritional needs based on your height, weight, and gender. You can use the Internet to find a calorie counter program that takes your gender, height, weight, and activity level in account. For example, if I was sedentary, my caloric need ranges between 1100 to 1300 calories a day, well under the 2,000 calorie diet that the traditional serving size takes in account.

Third, you want to consider your level of activity in a typical week, averaged out into the number of minutes you exercise a day. Exercise includes activities like house cleaning, gardening, walking stairs, and other kinds of moderate to vigorous activity that you might not think of as exercise. Typically, you can find caloric burn calculators on the Internet that can help you add up what a half hour of cleaning plus 45 -minutes of spinning on an indoor cycle will burn. You then add that to number of calories you need to eat to maintain your body weight, and this is the number of calories you need for the day.

For example, my maintenance daily caloric intake is:

1100-1300  + exercise calories burned + other activity = daily caloric intake

1100+ + 1 hr run (about 500 calories) + walking (300) = 2100 cal.

Now, for the really fun stuff!

To feel great, you now take your caloric need for the day and divide it over three to five meals and two to three snacks. To make this easy, I’d take my total (2100), and divide it by three (700), then subtract out 150 two to three times (that’s the snacks). What I’m going to shoot for is about 450 calories per meal, and 150 calories per snack.

All that’s left is to figure out what the most important stuff: what should actually go on the plate or in the bowl? If you eat meat or fish, a good chunk of those calories can be easily met by a portion of meat or fish. This takes care of your protein and fat in one choice, and you won’t likely need to add any oil or sauces to increase the calorie intake.

If you do not eat meat, fish, or dairy, you will be providing your protein and fat from a combination of  legumes, grains, nuts, and oils. In addition, most vegetarians and vegans learn to supplement their diet with iron, calcium, and B12.

Fruits should be added to the meal as a side dish and not as a main feature of your meal. The natural sugars found in fruit do not make it a reasonable meal by itself, and usually need to be consumed with another food that contains protein or fat. This is why you often see fruit served with cheese and crackers; the fat and carbs slow the uptake of the fruit’s sugar so you don’t “crash” after eating it.

To make things really easy, think of vegetables as your “free for all” food. Vegetables that do not have any added oil, sauce, or other ingredients can be consumed until you are full. You can start with one serving of vegetables in your meal, and if you are still hungry, add another serving.

At any of the three meals, you can strive to balance protein, fat, and carbs (fruits and veggies, grains) at about 20 by 20 by 60.

Now, your individual needs are going to change those numbers. If you have never had a nutritional workup done by a professional, I highly recommend that you see one! A Registered Dietitian is trained to look at specific needs related to your activity level, any disease state or recovery needs you might have (such as post-cancer recovery, chronic illness, Eating Disorder recovery, metabolic disorders, etc).

So for example, I found that when I followed the general requirements for my body, I lost an average of a half a pound every two days, and lost an additional pound on the weekends. Why? My food was generally nutritionally non-dense foods, like brown rice crackers, fish, leafy vegetables, and gluten-free granola. In order to keep up with my nutritional needs, I had to experiment with eating a second meal after workouts, or adding a heaping tablespoon of protein to a cup of rice milk after meals.

Eventually, after feeling like I was constantly tired and draggy, I discovered that I was feeling energized when I ate more protein. By pulling my blood labs, I discovered that my iron levels were indeed low; the dragging feeling was related to both burning through my protein and carb intake quickly, as well as needing to supplement my diet with occasional iron pills. Incidentally, this is a common story for females who are runners, so this was not difficult to discover.

You Are Not a Machine

The bottom line about eating right and feeling great is to understand that you are not a machine. Your body requires fuel, water, rest, movement, and good body mechanics. It needs attention, repair, and occasionally, parts need replacement! Most importantly, your body responds to food differently than someone else, and this is the main reason why you must become an expert at understanding what works best for you.

According to an IgG-ELISA allergen test, I should be able to consume quinoa, a nutritious seed used in many foods requiring a grain substitute. According to my doctor, I should be eating quinoa. Yet according to my tummy, eating even small amounts of quinoa is equal to a couple of unhappy trips to the bathroom. I don’t feel good when I eat it. That piece of data is enough for me to eliminate it from my list of foods to that make feel good when I eat them.

This year, when you plan your Thanksgiving meal, take the time to be grateful for what you are able to eat, and then consider what you can eat to feel terrific every single day. When you start thinking about how food can improve your mood, your health, and your outlook, why would you ever want to eat any other way again?

By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, AIP Coach and PN1-NC, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 30+ years in healthcare (22+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is a two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018); she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for 100 Mile trail races and a backyard ultra. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, camping under the stars, and cooking real food.

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