There’s no doubt that these times are indeed stressful. The pandemic is affecting everyday life, disrupting our work or school routines, and as a result, impacting both our physical and mental health. It seems that comfort food has never been more important. While there are many factors that are beyond your control, what’s on the menu may actually help to boost your mood.
New research, published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, examined the relationship between the consumption or avoidance of meat and psychological health and well-being. The review of 18 studies, which included more than 160,000 subjects, concluded that those who avoid eating meat tended to have higher rates or risk of depression and anxiety compared to those who include meat in their diet.
So what could be behind these findings?
The answers are not straightforward.
Firstly, there’s the question of what initiated the decision to become a vegetarian in the first place. It’s well-known that those with eating disorders are often restrictive when it comes to their food choices. Abstaining from meat is not an uncommon action for those struggling with these issues. So this could be a case of the chicken and the egg. Were anxiety and/or depression contributing to someone’s cutting out animal products, or is it the other way around?
Don’t fall short
For others, thoughts around animal welfare may motivate them to become vegetarians. But just because someone is a vegetarian doesn’t mean they’re choosing foods with top-notch nutrition. There are plenty of people who have gone meatless but instead of replacing animal foods with equally nutrient-rich selections, they’ve become what’s termed a junk food vegetarian, filling up on fries and other products simply labelled as plant-based.
Making smart food choices is key if you’re cutting out animal products and many studies do show that balanced vegetarian diets can promote good health. But falling short on key nutrients as well as having meals lacking balance can have an impact on both psychological and physical health, whether you’re a meat- eater or not. It’s just easier to experience nutrient shortfalls if you’re a vegetarian and not taking healthy eating into account.
Recent research, published in the journal BMC Psychiatry which looked at the risk of subjects with iron deficiency anemia and an association with psychiatric disorders, concluded that those with an iron deficiency had a higher likelihood of issues such as anxiety, depression and sleep disorders. The scientists also found that those treated with iron supplements had a lower risk of these mental health issues when compared to those who didn’t receive the supplementation. In other words, maintaining healthy iron levels in your blood plays a role in your psychological health.
Iron deficiencies are more common in non-meat eaters than in those who eat meat. While there are plenty of non-meat sources of iron, such as pulses or legumes, like chickpeas and kidney beans, along with whole grains, the iron from these foods (called non-heme) is not as easily absorbed as that from meat (called heme). Eating non-heme iron-rich foods alongside options containing vitamin C or along with some heme iron helps to boost the absorption of this mineral. So for those not eating meat, meal planning is vital for feeling good.
Don’t get hangry
Have you heard the term “hangry” (hungry and angry at the same time)? It’s how you can feel when your blood sugar is low. That irritability is the increase in stress hormones that often go hand in hand with low blood sugar levels. For others, low blood sugar readings can result in feeling down.
Going too long without eating or a lack of balance at meals can be responsible these mood changes. Though having only a plate full of salad or pasta may seem filling at the time, it won’t fulfill your needs. Toss in some egg, poultry, fish, cheese, meat or chickpeas to your salad or add some meatballs or lentils to your pasta sauce to move towards a more complete meal. Eating regularly and balancing your meals and snacks by including some protein, carbs and fat can help to sustain you and help to prevent blood sugar spikes and lows.
Following Canada’s Food Guide which recommends half your plate be filled with fruits and vegetables, one quarter with whole grains and a quarter with a protein food, may not only provide fuel to power your day through these difficult times but may also provide some comfort at the same time.
Here are a couple tasty recipes that fit right onto a healthy plate.
Lettuce Wrapped Swiss & Bacon Burger with Barley Slaw
A gourmet burger recipe gets lightened up by using lettuce instead of a burger bun. Served with a fresh yet hearty coleslaw accented with barley, grainy mustard and fresh dill, this dinner will satisfy a hungry appetite. Easily transform this recipe into a gluten-free option by using cooked quinoa instead of the barley.
- 1/4 cup (60 mL) canola oil
- 3 Tbsp (45 mL) EACH red wine vinegar and grainy Dijon mustard
- 1 Tbsp (15 mL) liquid honey
- 1 tsp (5 mL) salt
- 1/2 tsp (2 mL) EACH freshly ground black pepper, and celery seed (optional)
- 3/4 cup (4 mL) dry pearl barley, cooked and cooled to room temperature
- 1 bag (397 g) shredded coleslaw blend (about 4 cups / 1 L)
- 1 cup (250 mL) thinly sliced celery
- 1/3 cup (75 mL) chopped fresh dill or parsley
- 1/3 cup (75 mL) chopped green onion
- 1 Tbsp (15 mL) canola oil
- 1 lb (500 g) sliced cremini or button mushrooms
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 tsp (2 mL) steak spice blend
- 1 lb (500 g) extra lean ground beef
- 4 strips raw maple smoked bacon, diced
- 1-1/2 tsp (7 mL) steak spice blend
- 6 slices Swiss cheese
- Leaf, Boston or Bibb lettuce leaves, washed and dried well
- Slaw: In a large bowl, whisk oil with vinegar, mustard, honey, salt, pepper and celery seed (if using). Add barley, coleslaw blend, celery, dill and onion; toss to combine. Refrigerate, covered, for 30 minutes before serving.
- Mushrooms: Meanwhile, heat oil in a medium, nonstick skillet set over medium heat. Cook mushrooms with garlic and steak spice blend, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until softened and lightly browned. Remove from heat, cover and keep warm.
- Burgers: In a large bowl, gently mix beef with bacon and steak spice blend. Divide mixture into 6 equal portions; form into ¾-inch (2 cm) thick patties. Make a thumbprint depression in centre of each patty (to prevent puffing while grilling).
- Preheat grill to medium heat; grease grates well. Grill for 5 to 7 minutes per side, testing doneness with a digital instant read thermometer inserted sideways into centre of each patty to ensure patties are cooked to 160°F (71°C). Top burgers with cheese slices during the last 2 minutes of grilling, or until melted.
- Place each burger on top of a lettuce leaf on 6 serving plates; top burgers evenly with mushroom mixture and serve with slaw on the side.
Serves: 6 servings
- To Cook Indoors: Cook burgers in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat.
- Maple smoked bacon can be replaced with any type of side bacon, such as applewood smoked, peppercorn crusted or chipotle.
- Make ahead: Slaw can be prepared, covered and refrigerated overnight before serving. Assemble burger patties and refrigerate, covered, for 1 hour or up to 1 day before cooking and serving.
Per serving: 437 calories, 27 g protein, 28 g fat, 23 g carbohydrate, 24% DV iron, 95% vitamin B12, 56% DV zinc
Steakhouse Skewers with Hail Kale Caesar
Torn kale leaves are marinated in a creamy homemade dressing to tenderize the leaves and impart a intense garlicky-lemon flavour. It is the perfect rendition of the fan-favourite salad to serve with hearty and robust steak skewers. Lots of veggies make it easy to eat plant-based with a powerful protein like beef.
- 1 pkg (150 g) soft (silken) tofu (approx. 3/4 cup (175 mL))
- 1/4 cup (60 mL) canola oil
- 2 Tbsp (30 mL) grated Parmesan cheese (approx.)
- 2 Tbsp (30 mL) lemon juice
- 1 Tbsp (15 mL) red wine vinegar
- 1 tsp (5 mL) EACH Dijon mustard and Worcestershire sauce
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1/4 tsp (1 mL) EACH salt and freshly ground black pepper (approx.)
- 6 cups (1.5 L) shredded kale
- 4 cups (1 L) torn Romaine lettuce
- 3/4 lb (375 g) Beef Kabob Cubes or Grilling Steak (e.g. Top Sirloin or Strip Loin), cut into 1 inch cubes
- 12 cremini or button mushrooms
- 12 cherry or grape tomatoes
- 1 small red onion, cut into chunks
- 2 Tbsp (30 mL) EACH oil and grainy Dijon mustard
- 1 Tbsp (15 mL) Montreal steak spice
- 4 thick slices wholegrain bread
- 2 tsp (10 mL) canola oil
- 1 clove garlic, halved
- Salad: Place tofu, olive oil, Parmesan, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, salt and pepper in a blender. Blend until smooth and well combined. Toss ¾ cup dressing with kale (reserve remainder). Cover and chill for 30 minutes.
- Skewers: Preheat grill to medium-high heat; grease grate well. Whisk oil with mustard and steak spice. Alternate threading steak, mushrooms, tomatoes and onion onto soaked wooden or metal skewers. Brush all over with spice mixture. Grill, turning at least twice, for 8 to 10 minutes for medium-rare doneness.
- Toast: Brush oil on both sides of each slice of bread. Grill, turning as needed, for 2 to 3 minutes until toasted and well-marked. Cool slightly. Rub warm bread with cut side of garlic.
- Add romaine lettuce and remaining dressing to kale salad. Toss to combine well. Divide salad evenly among 4 plates. Garnish with additional Parmesan cheese and black pepper. Top with skewers and serve with garlic toast.
Serves: 4 servings
- Skewers can be cooked indoors as well by searing in a cast iron skillet set over medium-high heat and finishing under the broiler.
- Simplify the preparation and still have great crunch by substituting the grilled bread with roasted chickpeas.
- For a gourmet twist, use chunks of beef tenderloin and cook to medium-rare.
- Substitute homemade Caesar dressing or your favourite prepared dressing.
Per serving: 623 calories, 37.9 g fat, 5.3 g saturated fat, 1294 mg sodium, 39 g carbohydrates, 8.4 g fibre, 9.9 g sugar, 37.6 g protein. %DV: 76% zinc, 58% iron, 120% vitamin B12