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Positive nutrition and links to thriving

5 min
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As a busy student, dentist and positive psychologist Mahrukh Khwaja admits that she didn’t spend much time focusing on nutrition. Here, she explains how positive nutrition can support your body and brain to thrive, and the best food sources to fuel you while you study.

At dental school, food felt like something to fit in during library sessions and late-night revision. However, I did notice the brain fog that would occur when I ate certain snacks, as well as my concentration often waxing and waning.

With growing evidence linking nutrition to wellbeing and optimal functioning, we can think of food as fuel for the mind and body. In this blog, I’ll be exploring positive nutrition and its link to thriving.

Lessons from 'Blue Zones'

When thinking about lifestyle factors across cultures, interesting research by Buettner and Skemp outlines regions of the world where people are statistically healthier than average and live longer. These regions are known as ‘Blue Zones’ (Buettner and Skemp, 2016).

Five Blue Zones were discussed as part of this research, including Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece) and Loma Linda (California, USA). Although lifestyles differ slightly, below are three lifestyle lessons that came out of the food habits of people living in these places.

  1. Eat until you are 80% full, rather than to excess, each meal.
  2. Invite more vegetables and fruits into your diet. People living in Blue Zones tend to enjoy mostly a plant-based diet and consume lower amounts of meat.
  3. Build a tribe that supports healthy behaviours. Belonging to positive social and spiritual communities can help you feel connected and supported when building long-term healthy habits.

Gut health and wellbeing

Did you know that keeping your gut healthy might keep your brain healthy too?

In recent literature, light has been shone on the important relationship between our brain and gut microbiome. For example, eating poorly may affect the brain enough to cause symptoms that are similar to anxiety (Messaoudi et al., 2011; Hilimere et al., 2015), depression (Akkasheh et al., 2016), autism and Parkinson’s disease.

This happens because a poor diet stops us from getting nutrients and staying healthy. Additionally, unhealthy foods may damage the composition of our gut microbiome and cause an inability to properly breakdown nutrients.

Stress also greatly contributes here. The more stressed we are, the more damage we may cause to the gut microbiome. Contrastingly, eating well contributes to creating a healthy gut full of diverse gut microbiome. We’re less likely to get sick, we’re more productive and we have greater emotional wellbeing.

As with all systems in our bodies, a combination of a diet rich in gut-friendly foods and good stress management (for example, mindfulness practice, physical exercise and targeted supplements) may all help to create a gut and brain that are healthy.

When it comes to positive nutrition, consider increasing the following gut friendly foods on a regular basis:

Resilience and well-being for dental professionals infographic 

Figure from ‘Resilience and Well-being for Dental Professionals’, Khwaja 2023

Reducing glucose spikes

When we ingest too much glucose too quickly, we experience a glucose spike. The mitochondria in our cells become stressed and shut down. This leads to inflammation and affects their ability to make energy adequately.

Glucose spikes leave us feeling exhausted and hungry every few hours. They may also cause low mood, hormonal imbalances and brain fog, as well as speeding up the ageing process through a process known as glycation.

Long-term glucose spikes can lead to conditions like type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Flattening the curve is one way we can help our glucose regulation and support ourselves every day.

Here are some practical ways to do this:

1. Swap a sweet breakfast for a savoury one

A glucose spike from eating a sweet breakfast (for example, fruit juice, smoothies, cereal, toast and jam, pancakes and acai bowls) harms our mitochondria. Because insulin stashes glucose away, a sweet breakfast can give our bodies less energy than a savoury one.

Try some ideas from the list below and see how you feel. Make a note of how strong your cravings are and how much energy you feel.

  • Smoked salmon, avocado and cream cheese on rye toast
  • Hummus and tomatoes on toast
  • Scrambled eggs with avocado, pumpkin seeds and crumbled feta
  • Greek yoghurt with pumpkin seeds, pecans and almonds

2. Add a vegetable starter to one meal a day

Adding fibre to the beginning of meals has a powerful impact on our glucose levels. When fibre arrives in our upper intestine before other foods, it creates a protective mesh for the walls of our intestine.

This mesh reduces the absorption of any glucose molecules during the rest of our meal, and therefore decreases the glucose spike.

  • Eat the veggie starter prior to your meal
  • It doesn’t matter how the vegetables are prepared (cooked, raw, dressed or plain)
  • Try meal prepping in advance. Make raw veggie bags and keep them in the fridge, or use steamed frozen vegetable bags to add to lunch or dinner
  • Avoid pureeing the vegetables as this will affect the fibre content
  • Try to keep the vegetable portion to 30% of your overall meal

Move after eating

Our modern diets often include more glucose than we need. Moving within 90 minutes of your meal allows for some of the glucose you’ve eaten to get used up by your muscle cells. This reduces the spike through our mitochondria, turning the extra glucose into energy.

When we move after eating, we flatten the glucose spike without increasing our insulin level. This is great news as too much insulin is the driver for many unwanted health conditions, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

  • Add a 10-minute walk to your lunch break after eating
  • Stretch or do squats
  • Clean up your space

Final thoughts

From nourishing our bodies with nutritious foods to replenishing ourselves with movement and restorative sleep, if we want to have long, healthy careers in medicine, we need to make lifestyle shifts to support that longevity.

A lifestyle change, along with plenty of self-compassion, is required to create sustainable positive health. Why not try one tweak to your diet this week, and notice how you feel?


Khwaja (2023) 'Resilience and Well-being for Dental Professionals', Edition 1. Wiley and Sons Ltd, pp. 207-214.

Messaoudi, M., Lalonde, R., Violle, N., et al. (2011) 'Assessment of psychotropic-like properties of a probiotic formulation (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175) in rats and human subjects', Br J Nutr, 105(05), pp. 755-764.

Messaoudi, M., Violle, N., Bisson, J.F., et al. (2011) 'Beneficial psychological effects of a probiotic formulation (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175) in healthy human volunteers', Gut Microbes, 2(4), pp. 256-261.

Hilimire, M.R., DeVylder, J.E., Forestell, C.A. (2015) 'Fermented foods, neuroticism, and social anxiety: An interaction model', Psychiatry Res, 228(2), pp. 203-208.

Akkasheh, G., Kashani-Poor, Z., Tajabadi-Ebrahimi, M., et al. (2016) 'Clinical and metabolic response to probiotic administration in patients with major depressive disorder: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial', Nutrition, 32(3), pp. 315-320.

Buettner, D., & Skemp, S. (2016) 'Blue Zones: Lessons From the World's Longest Lived', American journal of lifestyle medicine, 10(5), pp. 318–321. doi: 10.1177/1559827616637066.

About the author
Dr Mahrukh Khwaja smiling outside
Dr Mahrukh Khwaja

Dentist and CEO of Mind Ninja

Dr Mahrukh Khwaja is a dentist, positive psychologist and accredited mindfulness teacher. She is also founder and CEO of Mind Ninja, a first-of-its-kind, award-winning wellness start up dedicated to improving the mental wellbeing and resilience of dental and healthcare professionals.

Visit Mind Ninja

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