“There is a bidirectional relationship between nutrition and mental health. This means what we eat has an influence on our brain because certain nutrients are crucial for brain function. At the same time, our brain—what we think, how we feel—has an influence on what we eat.”
Knowing this two-way relationship is important in developing and sustaining healthy habits, according to Christina Maningo, a board-certified health and wellness coach, who spoke at the July 26 webinar “You are What You Eat” organized by First Philippine Holdings Corporation. Aside from being a holistic health and wellness coach, Maningo is a movement specialist and wellbeing advocate who founded her own health and wellness platform, MYWELLNESS, in 2015.
Maningo, who has been learning and teaching yoga, mindfulness and meditation for over 10 years, said that 20 years ago, the Philippine Department of Health focused on eradicating malnutrition. In the same time frame, obesity rose to become a global problem. “Obesity affects 800 million worldwide,” she said, citing current UNICEF data.
“Around 27 million Filipinos are overweight and obese, based on the latest survey of the Department of Science and Technology’s Food and Nutrition Research Institute. For the past two decades, overweight and obesity among adults has almost doubled from 20.2% in 1998 to 36.6% in 2019. Similarly, the prevalence rates of overweight and obesity among adolescents have more than doubled from 4.9% in 2003 to 11.6% in 2018,” according to a UNICEF statement.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines overweight as a BMI (body mass index) greater than or equal to 25, and obesity as a BMI greater than or equal to 30. A 2021 fact sheet published by WHO recognized that “many low- and middle-income countries are now facing a ‘double burden’ of malnutrition.”
“While these countries continue to deal with the problems of infectious diseases and undernutrition, they are also experiencing a rapid upsurge in noncommunicable disease risk factors such as obesity and overweight, particularly in urban settings. It is not uncommon to find undernutrition and obesity coexisting within the same country, the same community and the same household,” WHO said.
Maningo shared research from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation that identified the top risk factors that drive most death and disability combined. Between 2009 and 2019, high BMI (being overweight or obese) had the greatest jump among risk factors, increasing by 64.9%. “More important, eight out of the top 10 are diet-related. Other than air pollution and tobacco, all the other risk factors can be influenced by proper nutrition,” she observed.
Aside from high BMI, the other risk factors that can be modified by a healthier diet are high blood pressure, malnutrition, dietary risks, high fasting plasma glucose, kidney dysfunction, alcohol use and high low-density lipoproteins or bad cholesterol.
Advocating a holistic approach to wellness, Maningo recommended not only mindful eating, but also physical activity, controlled breathing, reframing thoughts and seeking professional help, if necessary, in order to live a healthier lifestyle.
Mindful eating means giving full attention to an individual’s experiences, cravings and physical cues during mealtimes. “This means turning off the TV, putting away your cellphone and just appreciating the food in front of you. Giving thanks for the food is part of appreciating. Engage your senses by noticing the colors, smells, sounds, textures and flavors. Notice the effects food has on your feelings and figure,” she said.
Keeping a food diary can help one become aware not only of what they ate, but also of their mood before eating and how they felt after eating. “This is not to make you feel guilty or anxious about what you eat, but to empower you by making you understand what, why and how you eat.”
She gave insight on the science of comfort food which does not necessarily have to be unhealthy. “Studies show that comfort food is often associated with childhood memories. These are often meals prepared for us as a child, and made us feel better when we were sick or sad.” While these are usually associated with unhealthy food like candy or sugary drinks and snacks, these can also be healthier like poached egg or chicken soup.
Maningo encouraged her audience to make their comfort food healthier by incorporating more vegetables, using lean proteins, choosing whole grains, reducing or swapping high fat ingredients, experimenting with herbs and spices, and controlling portion sizes. For example, she herself loves to add malunggay to her fried rice and favors changing half of the white rice with cauliflower or broccoli. Portion control could be as simple as using smaller bowls or plates “because it’s a visual cue” and one can get surprised at how little one needs to eat to feel full.
Have a ‘movement snack’
For physical activity, she said short bouts of exercise are beneficial, and a 10-minute exercise is as effective as a single long one. “I call it a movement snack. It could be some squats, a few lunges or jogging in place. Movement improves mood, reduces stress, circulates blood which means you’re circulating the nutrients throughout your body and moving any toxins along for elimination. If you exercise for a minute—just one minute—before a meal, the nutrients will go to your muscles because they’re hungry for energy.”
Maningo led her Zoom audience in pranayama breathing, which essentially consists of a deep inhale and a slow, controlled exhale. Doing this relieves tension, induces relaxation and helps regulate the flow of blood in the digestive system.
Reframing thoughts helps recognize self-defeating patterns of thinking that prevent people from eating healthier. For example, a thought like “Eating healthy is too hard, I can’t do it” can be reframed as “I realize I am overeating, I need to think about how I can stop this behavior.”
She recommended seeking the help of dieticians and nutritionists, health coaches and even psychologists and psychiatrists to better address severe eating problems. “There is no shame in getting professional help because these consultants or mentors will hold you accountable.”
Finally, the most important thing to build a habit, a healthy habit, is to do something every day: “Something is better than nothing.”
(Story/Photos by: Carla Paras-Sison)