The relationship between food and health is complex. The foods we eat have a chemical effect on the brain and impact how we feel. Eating processed foods—from nutritional supplements like protein powders to combo meals from your favorite drive-thru—can keep your body from accessing the beneficial nutrients it needs to help you feel and perform your best. Why is this? Many of the essential and naturally occurring nutrients are stripped, altered or replaced during processing. This includes fiber, phytonutrients and other healthy compounds.
Current studies show that a balanced diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein promotes optimal health and better mood. These whole foods are made of vitamins and minerals that are broken down during digestion, making them available for the body to use as energy and for essential processes like cellular repair. When essential components are missing, we experience a decline in energy, alertness and mood.
Supplement vs. Whole Food
Supplements typically use artificial or synthetic vitamins and minerals, which may not offer the same benefits as whole foods. The human body is designed to recognize natural and whole ingredients, so it isn’t able to utilize the man-made vitamins and minerals as effectively.
Many supplements isolate particular nutrients and leave out essentials that the body would otherwise use if the food was consumed in its natural form. Take whey protein powder supplements for example. While this milk-based protein produces a rapid increase in amino acids needed for muscle growth and repair, casein protein can also help prevent muscle breakdown (which in turn, supports growth). Where do both whey and casein naturally occur? In milk! In general, service members consume enough protein through their food and don’t actually need to supplement their protein intake.
Comfort Food vs. Whole Food
Our mood often influences what we eat, but what we eat can also influence our mood. Consider these scenarios:
- Two Sailors are experiencing similar stressors. They’re in the midst of preparing for permanent change of station (PCS) moves that are causing a lot of strain in their households and on their wallets. At work, they’re both hit with short-fused tasks that their current supervisors are keeping close watch on, in addition to the other things they have to get done.
- When Sailor A gets home, tired and frustrated, he reaches for cookies, potato chips and a soda and heads to the couch. He starts to get his mind off of everything, but about 20 minutes later he’s back to feeling drained and irritated.
- When Sailor B gets home, tired and frustrated, he goes for some leftover grilled chicken and vegetables in the refrigerator and a glass of water. His problems don’t go away after he eats, but he’s able to regroup and shift focus to the things he can get done at home to support the move without feeling angry or annoyed.
Why the different outcomes? The comfort foods Sailor A went for are highly processed, high in added sugar and fat, and low in nutrients. While they may have an emotional appeal (especially if they were his go-to comforts as children) those effects wore off quickly. The vitamins and nutrients he needed to rebalance his mood, such as serotonin, were missing or less effective because they were in a man-made form that wasn’t as accessible to his body. This emotional rollercoaster can increase feelings of anxiety, depression and fatigue, causing the craving cycle to begin again. Sailor B got the benefits of serotonin, boosting his mood and giving him the energy to do something productive. Not only did he get his mind off of his day, but he’ll sleep better and be more focused and alert.
How to make changes
Eating healthy or healthier doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. Here are a few ways to make the switch to whole or less processed foods:
- Re-think fast food. For a quick and healthy meal, opt for a rotisserie chicken at your local grocery store, a salad and fresh fruit.
- Shop the perimeter of your grocery store for fresh meats and produce. Most frozen food is good too; just skip items with gravies and sauces. Living in the barracks? Check out these tips to eat healthy while saving time, space and money.
- Swap out your sugary snack stash for your favorite fresh fruits and vegetables; the original comfort foods. Pair them with 10-15 nuts or a tablespoon peanut butter or other healthy spread.
- If going for a processed food (something that comes in a bag, box, container or package), aim for five ingredients or less. Watch out for high-fructose corn syrup and other hidden sugars.
Talk to your Health Promotions Office or Registered Dietitians (RD/N) office for more information and resources.
LT Pamela Gregory, OPNAV N17 Nutrition Program Manager, is a Registered Dietitian with nine years’ experience in counseling a wide variety of clientele on nutrition and health-related diseases/ topics. LT Gregory uses a functional nutrition approach to assist clients in their treatment phase.
- (2015, Aug. 31). Is Whey Protein the way to go? Retrieved Jun. 21, 2017, from http://hprc-online.org/dietary-supplements/hprc-articles/is-whey-protein-helpful-to-optimize-performance.
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