• Sarah Hickson

Nutrition as Self Care: Eat Your Way to Better Resilience

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

Part 2

In part 1 of this series I had discussed the unique challenges and demands that parents face supporting a child affected by disability and how regular self-care practices such as mindfulness meditation, mapping out and creating support networks/connections and self-reflective writing may help to minimise the negative impact these stressors may impose onto health and wellbeing (click here to read more).

In part 2 of this series I will provide some tips on how you can meal plan and support yourself nutritionally to ensure that you are receiving the range of nutrients that your body and mind requires to function effectively, giving you greater resilience against burning out and the energy to thrive as your child’s parent, caregiver and biggest advocate.

Do You Find It Easy to Reach for Something Sweet while Stressed? The Underlying Biology Behind Those Sweet Cravings

Under the influence of the stress hormone cortisol it’s very common to regularly crave and binge on carbohydrate rich, sweet foods to provide a tired body and mind with a quick source of energy. A depletion of serotonin inside the brain, a chemical that is essential for mood elevation and regulation and healthy sleep initiation (through its conversion into melatonin inside the brain) and often the target chemical of antidepressant medication, can also play a role in triggering sugar cravings and often binge-eating behaviours.

Diets rich in refined sugars and simple carbohydrates is a physical stressor for the body as these foods play havoc with our blood glucose levels, creating a rollercoaster effect that can further exacerbate sugar cravings and binge-eating while also feeding that cortisol response. Furthermore, a lack of dietary protein and vitamin and mineral deficiencies such as folate, vitamins B3 and B6 and magnesium can deplete serotonin levels inside the brain. If there is inflammation inside the body, which there often is with chronic stress and poor dietary habits, chemicals released through the inflammatory response can further deplete serotonin levels inside the brain, further depressing mood, encouraging feelings of anxiety and reducing the capacity to emotionally self-regulate.

A Balanced Plate

In my work I always aim to encourage my clients to observe the effect food has over their emotions and arousal throughout the day and to also check in with themselves and observe, in the moment, whether or not their trigger to eat is coming from a pure hunger signal or if it is an emotional cue, e.g. boredom, stress or distraction? Paying attention to our personal emotional drivers and observing how they influence our eating behaviours can help us to more effectively tune in to what our body's and emotional needs are and how they are affected by our social interactions, relationships and lifestyle. This practice helps us to develop more effective emotional regulating strategies as an alternative to food (e.g. getting outside and going for a walk, meditating, getting to bed earlier each night, seeking some support if feeling over burdened), enabling us to eat more intuitively, that is, eating based on our internal hunger cues. I also encourage my clients to follow the strategy of balancing their main meals with a combination of protein, slowly digested, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and dark leafy green vegetables as eating in this way effectively promotes a greater sense of satiety, provides important nutrients for energy production and healthy mood and helps also to maintain healthy blood glucose levels, promoting greater emotional regulation overall. A balanced meal includes a combination of protein, beneficial fats, quality carbohydrates and vegetables and to follow is a brief overview:


Good quality sources of protein include grass fed beef, free range chicken and eggs, plain yoghurt, tofu or tempeh and oily fish such as mackerel, anchovies and wild salmon. A serve of protein is equivalent to the size of your palm.

Beneficial Fats

Healthy fats include avocado, raw nuts and seeds (e.g. walnuts, macadamias, pecans, almonds, chia seeds and pepitas), unrefined coconut oil, cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil, grass fed butter (in small amounts) and ghee (clarified butter). Drizzle olive oil over your cooked vegetables, use avocado as a spread on toast in stead of margarine, add two finger portions of raw nuts to your salad and stir in a tablespoon of chia seeds to your yoghurt as a snack.

Quality Carbohydrates

Great sources of slowly digested, complex carbohydrates include sweet potato, brown basmati rice, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, millet and legumes such as kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils. The recommended serve of complex carbohydrates is the equivalent to the size of your fist.

Nourishing Your Cells and Supporting Detoxification

Adding sulfur-rich foods to your cooking such as fennel, garlic, onions, broccoli and cauliflower also aids the body’s detoxification mechanisms, promoting the removal of harmful toxins that may hinder mood, healthy emotional processing, clarity of thought, energy production and immunity. It is recommended to include 3 of these foods into your diet each day, along with 3 different coloured vegetables to complement your dark leafy greens (e.g. cucumber, capsicum, carrot, peas, tomatoes, pre-cooked pumpkin etc).

Make Meal Prepping a Weekly Habit

When you’re feeling stressed and tired it can be so easy to turn to foods of convenience such as takeaway or pre-packaged meals to save on the mental and physical energy required to cook and clean up, yet doing this regularly not only deprives you of the nutrients that your body and brain needs to function adequately, they also tend to be filled with food additives, hidden sugars and preservatives that can create their own set of issues, compromising your health and wellbeing over the long term. The following ideas can help you get through such moments while supporting your body in the process. Try one or two at a time and see how it works for you. Adapt it to your own schedule and taste preferences.

  • Set aside 30 minutes once or twice a week, e.g. a Sunday or a Wednesday, to make batches of a whole grain such as brown rice, buckwheat quinoa to keep in the fridge and add to your meals as you need. You may be inclined to make large batches, divide up and freeze so you can grab them out of the freezer for weekly dinners. Work it into a salad of mixed greens, smoked salmon, tinned tuna, chicken or soft-boiled eggs for a throw together, easy meal.

  • If time is permitting, you could also prepare a dried salad mix (e.g. grated carrot, spinach, green beans and red onion) on Sunday and “dress” with olive oil and apple cider vinegar upon serving throughout the week. If that seems too much for you with a busy schedule, look for organic, ready to go dark leafy salad mixes at your local supermarket and use these. It is recommended that we each consume 6-8 serves of vegetables each day. Given the vitamin, mineral and antioxidant rich capacity of dark leafy green veggies, having at least 3 serves of these vegetables each day will certainly support our overall health and wellbeing.

  • Soft boil eggs twice a week and keep them in the fridge to add to lunches or dinner, or for a protein hit as a snack.

  • Add cans of wild salmon, pole and line caught tuna, sardines or mackerel (all rich in omega 3) to your weekly shop. Keep them in the cupboard to add to salads or to “throw” onto a piece of wholegrain sourdough toast (with some leafy greens), perhaps with a seasoning of dried Italian herbs, perhaps with a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice, for a fast yet balanced breakfast, lunch or dinner.

  • Keep your fruit bowl full of ready to grab fruit if you’re rushing out the door (bananas are excellent for this), make up small containers of raw nuts and keep them in the fridge. When you’re rushing out the door to an appointment with your child pop one these containers, along with a piece of fruit into your bag. Having a snack on hand can ward off hypoglycaemia and consequential sugar cravings while travelling between appointments.

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