For people who struggle with mental illness, food can have all sorts of positive and negative meanings. Certain foods can help or hinder maintaining a healthy emotional state, others can trigger unhealthy spirals: They can contribute to specific mental health issues that can cause dramatic changes in eating habits — which can further exacerbate those psychological problems.
It’s important to mention that food alone doesn’t fix mental health issues, and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably trying to sell you something. However it’s an extremely important part of our daily lives that affects mood, energy, and gut chemistry, and it’s often involved with triggers or symptoms related to mental illness. So as a potent method of self-care, mental health maintenance, and healing over time, food is very impactful.
“Unhealthy” has many meanings when it comes to food. It can mean too much, too little, the wrong kinds of foods, or it can simply mean an emotional relationship to food.
There’s a great deal of documentation about the connections between food and psychology. Food is fundamental to our survival, but as self-aware, thinking beings, our relationship to it is much more complicated than biological necessity. It can become an influential aspect of our memories and childhood development, as well as help develop relationships with our self-esteem, comfort, and anxiety. Food is present every day of our lives; even if we’re not actively consuming it, food becomes conspicuous in its absence. When we think about something that much — when it becomes part of so many experiences — we are bound to develop complex associations with it.
For many people who have mental illness, food can be both a source of help and hindrance. Eating poorly can begin a downward spiral of negative moods that in turn decrease the motivation to eat well. Especially with depression and anxiety, the extra energy required to begin correcting an unhealthy habit just isn’t possible while in the torpor of a mood swing or depressive episode.
This damaging relationship doesn’t have to take the form of bulimia or other conspicuous disorders. Sometimes it’s even positive associations with food, like nostalgia, that cause us trouble if we weren’t brought up eating healthily.
For many people, physical health issues that come along with eating poorly add difficulty to recovering from and/or learning to live with mental illness, which makes the cycle even worse.
Food as a Positive Influence
On the other hand, food can be an enormous help to people whether struggling with mental illness or just trying to lead a healthier and more energetic life.
Food has an impact on the brain, our cognition and emotional state. Getting the right mix of vitamins, minerals, oils, healthy fats, and everything else that goes into a balanced diet can help to improve our brain functions, energy levels, memory, and can help us to manage emotions. Now to take a pause, it’s important to make one thing clear again: Eating right isn’t a cure. It is most certainly a very effective way to manage symptoms, and maintain healthy habits. However, for many people medical intervention has to come first. Healthy habits generally need a healthy state of mind to form because they take effort.
Once you’re in a place where putting the extra effort in makes sense, however, food is a powerful tool to keep you there. Certain foods like salmon and chamomile help to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Healthy habits stack; they feed into one another just like unhealthy ones. One major way to keep a good routine going is to recognize the first signs of self-sabotage — the games our minds play with themselves, the doubts and fears we create that lead to inaction or unhealthy action. Recognizing the start of this process, and seeking help if need be early, is one of the ways to avoid pitfalls in our mental health.
Remember, too, that a healthy and balanced diet doesn’t exclude indulgence. Occasional indulgence is part of self-care, and disallowing it is setting yourself up for a perfect storm of guilt and desire to start an unhealthy cycle. “Naughty” foods like chocolate do actually make us feel better, and even indulging in actively bad-for-us food can help once in a while.
Noah Y. Rue is always looking where his next trip will take him. When he’s not traveling the world, he’s writing articles on the new things he learns. Noah also enjoys a good meme from time to time.
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