Are you really what you eat? Does the food you eat have any impact on your mental state and mental health? You probably already know that food can affect your mood – if you’ve ever felt happier after eating something made of chocolate or grumpy because you haven’t eaten enough lately, you already know that food can have some immediate impact on your feelings and well-being. But what about your overall diet? Does it have a deeper impact on your mental health? Take a look at what you need to know about nutrition and how it may affect your mental health.
Food and Mental Health: Nutritional Psychiatry
When trying to determine a link between food and mental health, it’s worth looking into nutritional psychiatry – the study of how food affects the mind. Studies have been done that establish a link between common mental illnesses like depression and anxiety and diet, and there’s also some evidence that food allergies may play a role in illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a specific diet or food causes any of those disorders. It’s more complicated than that. But it does mean that food and mental health may play more of a contributing role than previously thought.
It’s not that surprising that mental health may be affected by diet. It can be easy to think of mental health as a non-physical thing. But many mental health conditions are accompanied by physical differences or changes in the brain. The brain, like everything else in your body, is affected by the food you consume. It’s logical to conclude that eating foods that are good for your brain is a good thing for your mental health as well.
Preparing Your Food With Mental Health in Mind
It’s not just the vitamins and other nutrients that are in your food that affect your mental health. Food preparation is part of the equation too, and it starts even before the food gets to your kitchen. You probably know that fresh fruits and vegetables contain more nutrients than processed snack foods, but did you know that growing some of those fruits and vegetables yourself can be good for you? Gardening promotes time in nature and exercise, both of which are good for you. There’s also a link between soil bacteria and stress resilience. Which means that the actual act of getting your hands dirty in the garden is good for your mental health. If you don’t have a yard or other space for gardening, consider container gardening. Or even starting small with a few herbs like basil and mint that can be grown in small pots and kept as house plants. A few fresh herbs will add some fresh flavor to your food. It gives you the benefits of working in the garden without the space requirements.
Once you have the food, whether you’ve grown it or picked it up from the grocery store, the next step is preparing it for eating. Many people view cooking as a chore, or they’re intimidated by the process and afraid of making a mistake. But cooking can be good for your mental health. It can be especially good for your mental health if you approach it as a creative act, if you cook with others, and if you cook for others.
Creative Cooking With Others
You may not have thought of cooking as a creative outlet, but it really can be. Anyone can follow a basic recipe. If you can read, you can cook. And following recipes step by step is a good place to start if you’re new to cooking. But creativity comes when you start to feel confident enough to start putting your own twist on things. Maybe that’s by subbing out one ingredient for another. Maybe it’s pairing a main dish and side dish that you wouldn’t previously have put together. Or maybe you can express your creativity by beautifully plating the foods that you cook. There are a lot of ways to prepare food. It’s something that you’d have to do anyway. Food can serve as a way to express yourself creatively.
Cooking with other people can increase your enjoyment of the act of cooking itself, as well as boost your feelings of connection with the people you’re working with, which is great for your mental health. And cooking for other people inspires what’s called a “helper’s high” – the good feeling you get when you do something nice for somebody else and experience their appreciation and enjoyment of that act.
How to Eat Mindfully
Another aspect of food and mental health is how you eat your food, regardless of what it is or how it was prepared. Using mindfulness while eating has health benefits – you tend to eat better food and are less likely to overindulge when you’re eating mindfully – but it also has mental health benefits. When you eat mindfully, you take the time to really savor the food, which can help you enjoy it more. This has a positive effect of food and mental health is a sense of well-being.
Eating mindfully essentially means paying attention to both the food and to your body while you’re eating. Eliminate distractions – don’t eat in front of the television or with your phone in your hand. Make a point of noticing the colors of the foods on your plate, the smells of the food, the texture of the food, and of course, the flavor of the food. Appreciate the food – think about how it will fuel your body and mind for whatever you have to do next. And pay close attention to your own body and your hunger cues. When your body tells you that it’s full, stop eating. It’s OK to have leftovers. Make eating your meal an experience that you truly enjoy, not one that you just rush through to get to the next thing.
Eating is a necessity, for your body and your mind. The effects of food and mental health go further than your stomach. Knowing that your diet can have an effect on your mental health might inspire you to take all aspects of choosing, preparing, and eating food more seriously.