Self-Care Week, Day 4: Sustenance

To mark Self-Care Week, I’m revisiting my series The Seven Components of Self-Care, which first ran from February to April 2015. Nearly two years on, I’ve re-read and updated it a bit, and am reposting it every day this week. If you missed them, you can catch up with part one (sleep) here, part two (support) here, and part three (sports) here. Join in the discussion in the comments or on Twitter using #selfcareweek.

Sustenance

Photo by Michael Stern

Photo by Michael Stern


I’m using ‘sustenance’ to mean all things foody because it alliterates with the previous topics, and I love a nice bit of alliteration.

(I am now going to write an entire blog post about food while sitting in Starbucks, worryingly close to a tempting stack of paninis, with my beloved caramel macchiato in my non-typing hand. OK. Let’s do this.)

Food, stress, self-care and me
I really like food.

But also… I know that I eat as a response to stress, and my children’s behaviour is often a trigger. Once they’ve been home from school for half an hour five minutes, the bickering has begun, and the listening to me has stopped, I head to the kitchen for something else to do. At this point I am usually thinking that I need to (a) save my sanity and (b) model an appropriate way to deal with frustration. (The eating part might not be a great example, but removing myself from a situation rather than yelling at them is positive, so let’s go with that.)

This is why, as I mentioned last week, I can be found at my local Weight Watchers meeting every week, checking in and soaking up inspiration as I aim to lose 4st in 2015.  I’ve now been doing Weight Watchers for just over a month (without the accountability it provides, I fall off the wagon). I’ve lost 7lbs, so I’m on target so far. And the sense that I’m in control of this aspect of my life feels good, especially when the kids are off the scale and we live with a lot of unpredictability in terms of how they feel like behaving on any given day. So, me doing Weight Watchers is me doing self-care. (As I would say if I was American, go me.)

Why it matters
As we all know, food is fuel and a good balance of the healthy stuff (protein, carbs, fibre, vitamins and what-not) equips our bodies to run well. This is especially important for people who experience high levels of stress on a day-to-day basis (such as those parenting children who have experienced trauma), because the combination of stress and unhealthy eating can lead to severe long-term health issues, such as diabetes, heart problems, and depression. As the Stress Management Society says, ‘Lack of nutrition will inflict a greater stress on the body, plus other problems that pose a threat to your physical and mental health’. They elaborate:

‘One of the main issues with stress is that it can cause unhealthy eating habits. This applies mainly to people who are always on the go and lead a busy lifestyle. People that fall into this category often endure large amounts of stress and have no time to fit a balanced nutrition around their busy schedule. Additionally, stress makes the body crave foods that are high in fats and sugars. This flaw in eating, in time will inflict a greater stress on the body, plus other problems that pose a threat to your physical and mental health.

‘When a person becomes overwhelmed with stress, a common reaction is a sudden urge to eat food. The majority of the time, foods consumed in this situation will be ‘convenience foods’ that are considered a quick fix to nullify stress. The theory of a quick fix is entirely false however, as these foods/drinks only worsen the problem. Consuming foods that are of a ‘junk’ nature actually increase the volume of stress on your body.’

(Their guide to eating to combat stress then goes on to talk about the perils of sugar and caffeine, and, well, as I read it I start to feel that I am being nagged. At this point I am finishing my caramel macchiato and concentrating on the bit about not smoking where, having never touched a cigarette, I can feel virtuous. Ahem. Shall we continue?)

How? When? Where?
So what should we be doing food-wise to help us cope with stress, and how can we add taking care of our nutrition to an already overwhelming to-do list as adoptive parents? Exactly what should we be eating to help our bodies cope with the relentless stresses of adoptive parenting?

  • B vitamins: These help ease stress, depression and anxiety, as well as other physical benefits. (There’s a helpful list of exactly which B vitamins do what here.) They’re found in Marmite, eggs, wholegrain bread and fortified cereals. So eggs and toast and Marmite takes care of that one.
  • Vitamin C: Protects the immune system and lowers the amount of cortisol (a ‘stress hormone’) in your body. It’s in many fruits and vegetables, with particularly high levels in oranges, red and yellow peppers, blackcurrants, strawberries, broccoli and brussels sprouts. Making sure you get your five a day and include some of these sorts this one out.
  • Magnesium: Helps with muscle relaxation, fatty acid formation, making new cells and heartbeat regulation, and is found in green leafy vegetables, meat, fish, nuts and dairy products. So a dose of salmon and spinach and few more almonds, and you’re done.
  • Protein: Helps with growth and tissue repair. Good sources include meat, eggs, nuts and seeds. So a handful of almonds mid-morning will do that one.

(Obviously a multivitamin pill could take care of all this for you, but isn’t it more enjoyable to do some actual eating?)

If you’re the sort of person who can look at at a list like that and go off and put it into practice without gaining an ounce, good for you. I am not. I see a a list like that as a licence to eat brazil nuts all day ‘for my mental well-being’, and add in a bacon sandwich with thick slices of granary bread and magnesium-rich margarine at lunchtime to make sure I have enough of the good stuff in my system. Hmm. So to manage it all appropriately without looking like a hippo in a T-shirt, I need a plan.

As I’ve said, Weight Watchers is a large part of the solution for me. I commit to spending 45 minutes in a meeting every week, weighing in, talking about making the right choices, and reminding myself that I need to invest in my health as a fundamental part of my self-care, rather than reaching for a quick fix in the moment. I can work all the healthy stress-proofing foods into my points allowance, so I snack on grapes and bananas and (very tiny) Marmite sandwiches when I’m feeling wound up, and try to skip the nuts most of the time (because I am very bad at stopping eating them) and go for eggs instead.

I also have a Fitbit (bought in the sales on Boxing Day) which syncs with the Weight Watchers app on my phone, and basically converts exercise into more food. Excellent.

The Fitbit app
The FitBit app
2015-02-25 11.53.34
The WeightWatchers app

Related to this is my need to stay hydrated to help with my self-regulation, as I was saying on Twitter recently:

…which speaks for itself.

So, hands up who’s joining me in the land of Marmite sandwiches? Or do you have other ways of getting all these stress-beating foods into your diet while still having a life (and maybe a sneaky coffee or two)? I’d love to hear your comments.



Further reading
The Energy Diet (NHS)
Combating Stress with a Balanced Nutritional Diet (Stress Management Society)
Weight Watchers

What are your thoughts on the importance of making good food choices to your own self-care? Is it something you’re managing well or struggling with? Do you have strategies that work well for you? Please share your comments below and join in the conversation on Twitter with the #selfcareweek hashtag.

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