Nutrition & Mental Health in Working Women: Experts Explain the Connection

Nutrition & Mental Health in Working Women: Experts Explain the Connection

By: Anindita, writer

34 year old Revathi Sathyanarayan works a 10 hour shift every day. Employed in the highly stressful event management sector, her entire day consists of running around the city across event venues. With an erratic work schedule, she hardly finds time to have her meals on time. When she does find the time to eat, she often has to rely on pre-packaged or fast food. “Off late, I’ve been experiencing persistent fatigue. I’m exhausted all the time,” she tell me. “But surprisingly, I have also been experiencing lack of motivation and mood-swings. While I understand how my physical health is being impacted by my life-style and diet yet I’m not sure if it has been impacting my mental health too,” she wonders.

It’s well known that eating a balanced diet positively impacts our physical health, but do you know how it impacts our mental health? Recently several studies have been conducted to understand the impact food has on both our overall mental wellness, as well as specific mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

Giving today’s fast paced and competitive work environment, working professionals find it difficult to maintain work-life balance. The situation is harsher for working women  who still have to shoulder household, child care, elder care responsibilities etc. With less time to invest in eating a healthy and balanced diet, they often suffer from severe consequences due to the lack of nutrients in their body.

What’s the link between food and mood?

Experts tell us that eating a balanced diet that is nutrient-rich can help to increase energy levels, improve mood and help one think clearer. After all, “Health is wealth”. Carbohydrates, vitamins, fiber, proteins, fat, minerals and water are all different forms of nutrients required by our body.

“Key variations in dietary and lifestyle habits can improve or worsen the mental health of the women and can also make them prone to develop mental illnesses,” says Dr Anurag Agrawal, Neuropsychiatrist, Samvedna Neuropsychiatry Centre, Lucknow. He further explains the various facets of a busy working person’s lifestyle that can have a negative impact on one’s mental health, “Unhealthy dietary habits like eating junk and packaged food (which are high in fat and simple carbohydrates), avoiding fruits and green leafy vegetables, excessive use of caffeine, leading a sedentary lifestyle all will impact a woman's mental wellness negatively.

Dr Priyadarshi Srivastava, Consultant Neuropsychiatrist, Vivekanand Hospital, seconds these thoughts and sheds light on the various ailments that can afflict women owing to a lack of nutritious diet. “Leading to various psychological ailments such as anxiety, depression, and OCD, diets low in macro and micronutrients adversely affect the gut bacteria. Diets high in sugar, saturated fatty acid, monosodium glutamate predisposes to mental illnesses.” He further suggests that consuming a ‘Rainbow diet’, i.e. various coloured vegetable and a diet that is fibre rich can promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria and in turn help people have a healthy mind too.  

Dr Anurag tell us, “Lack of proper nutrition in diet may lead to stress-related disorders like sleep disturbances, migraine attacks, tension, anxiety, irritability and mood swings. Rarely severe mental disorders like bipolar disorder, psychosis can be precipitated in prone individuals”.

Speaking specifically about key nutrients, the deficiency of which can afflict women Dr Priyadarshi adds, “Many nutrient deficiencies causes mental disorders. Vitamin D deficiency causes depression in women. The deficiency of vitamin B12 has been linked to dementia. Folic acid deficiency correlates with foetal neural tube defects”.

Role of nutritious food in a working women’s life

In order to understand nutrition and its role in our health, it’s important to know the key nutrients that we require to keep our body and brain healthy. Complex carbohydrates are one of the key nutrients that we require. Derived from starchy vegetables and brown rice complex carbohydrates give our body the energy to function. Food such as quinoa, millet, beets and sweet potatoes keep us satisfied longer than the simple carbohydrates found in sugar and candy.

Similarly, lean proteins give us the energy to think and react quickly. Chicken, meat, fish, eggs, soybeans, nuts and seeds are some of the protein-rich foods. Added to this fatty acids which can be derived from fish, meat, eggs, nuts and flaxseeds are rich sources of fatty acids and are crucial for the proper functioning of our brain.

What are we doing wrong?

According to Ria Gupta, a Delhi based NASM Certified sports nutritionist who closely works with various individuals to create diets, working women make a few common mistakes that impact their nutrition and health. “Skipping breakfast/ eating cereals or having just coffee for breakfast is one of the primary mistakes that working women make. Instead of this, having a protein and fibre rich breakfast is the key to a productive and energetic day. Also one should avoid sugar-loaded cereals/ fried foods and switch to wholesome meals,” says Ria.

Echoing Ria’s perspective, Dr Anurag adds, “Delaying or skipping meals in a high work-pressure environment should be avoided at all costs as it will lead to poor nutrition and low energy levels for the brain. Maintaining an adequate hydration level is essential and should not be missed during long office hours. Studies have also shown that excessive use of caffeine in absence of any exercise may predispose to mental stress”.

Ria also mentions how long sitting hours and no exercise can be harmful for working women. “A sedentary lifestyle is the root cause of most of the problems these days. Backache due to bad posture, obesity, type2 diabetes, body ache due to loss of muscle mass, hormonal imbalances etc are some common problems working women face”. Ria also cautions women on the ills of stocking up desk drawers with processed foods (chocolates, cookies. chips etc) to satiate the in between hunger pangs.

When those lined up deliverables stresses you out, you reach for that pack of cookie and finish it without even realising the sugar and calorie content. Moreover, combination of carbs and fats makes these things easy to overeat without providing any nutritional benefit,” explains Ria.

Small Steps, Big Benefits

While our working hours might be long and working conditions highly stressful, yet there are simple steps that women can take to ensure that they maintain a balanced diet which in turn will help improve their physical and mental health. Ria tell us how, “Instead of keeping junk food in the drawer keep trail mix, fruits like oranges, home-roasted foxnuts, protein powder that will help you avoid sugar-loaded coffee”.

Ria also gives us simple and quick breakfast options for busy women, “Boiled eggs with a piece of fruit and nuts, sprouts salad, yoghurt with some fruits and seeds, oatmeal with some eggs, paneer whole wheat sandwich, whey protein are a few good breakfast options. Even if you don’t have time to go to the gym do some weight-bearing exercises at home.”

Now that the experts have spoken about how nutrition can help us build a healthier mind and body, we have no excuses to consider consuming a nutritious diet. If you are facing problems in terms of manage your nutrition, you can consult nutritionists and doctors for their beneficial advice.