Food For Thought: Exploring The Relationship Between Food And Mental Health
Why do we eat the way we eat? The relationship between food and your mental health is a sacred one, and here’s what you need to know about it
All my fitness enthusiasts, here’s a thought. Have you ever wondered if the brain burns any calories? Did you know that it does? A whopping 20 to 25 per cent calories, mainly in the form of glucose. This calorie-guzzling function makes the brain the most energy expensive organ in our body. And as the brain never really switches off, it facilitates your thoughts, movements, respiration, and pulse rate, your senses — even while you are sleeping. So it’s only obvious that the brain needs food to fuel this function 24×7.
Let’s first look at the science of nutrition and food. While nutritional psychiatry has significantly evolved, we are also at the forefront of a digital transformation that influences our diet and mental health. Everyone has felt the WFH environment change the way we treat food, and that, coupled with online food delivery platforms servicing every urge and craving across diverse cuisines at any time of the day, is a recipe for irregular food habits, a blur of fixed eating timings, and unhealthy comfort food available with just a few clicks. You may not entirely understand it when it happens, but these habits can lead to the ubiquitous yet unaddressed concept known as Disordered Eating. Don’t confuse it with eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia as seen in some popular TV shows (The Crown, Gossip Girl, etc.) While eating disorders are diagnosed by conducting psychological assessments, disordered eating is left undiagnosed despite a significant population, especially the younger generation, experiencing it.
The symptoms of disordered eating can be pretty in your face — frequent dieting, binge eating, fasting, or purging, cravings, erratic food restrictions and preoccupation with the food-weight-body image. Such behaviour leads to feelings of guilt, anxiety, body shaming, which frequently go unaddressed. In order to comprehensively address this, let’s take a step back and ask ourselves — why do we indulge in this?
In societies across the world, food has always been associated with events. On clearing examinations, we treat friends to dinner, on finishing school homework, children are rewarded with sweets, after a break-up, we tend to binge on tubs of ice-cream. The emotions attached to events of achievements, failures, celebrations, have always been linked with food. Moreover, social media, cinema, and pop culture tend to reinforce this association between ‘emotions’ and ‘eating’ as something everyone does to fill an emotional void temporarily. Like Shefali Shah’s character in Dil Dhadakne Do stuffing cake in her mouth in a stressful scene, or when Rachel orders a “large pizza” after an emotionally exhausting fight/break-up with Ross in F.R.I.E.N.D.S. You see what I mean?
Which leads me to comfort foods. Have you noticed that carrots and broccoli are rarely comfort foods? Nope. Those are always ice-creams, chocolates, and pizzas. That is because high-fat and high-sugar food items such as these activate “happy” chemicals in the body that create a sense of contentment and fulfilment.
But even then, it’s not like indulging in what you like doesn’t come with its additional burden, because the vicious cycle leads you to obsess about calories, the frequency of your comfort food obsession, et al. Even Demi Lovato, in her 2017 documentary, Simply Complicated, revealed, “Food is the biggest challenge in my life. It’s something that I’m constantly thinking about. Body image, what I’m gonna eat next, what I wish I could be eating, what I wish I didn’t eat. It’s just constant.”
And next comes justification. Recently, a client came into a session explaining that she ate a pastry, and so, she will have to work out for four hours at the gym to compensate. Harmful, so harmful. Constantly calculating a debit-credit system around your dietary habits and lifestyle is not healthy, and a cycle that needs to be broken.
So how do you indulge in eating well for your mental health? How do you break out of these patterns? I’ve listed a few, and I feel like these can be a start.
Each body is built differently, with different needs. It is vital that we know our body thoroughly to understand what nutrition choices work for us, and what won’t.
It is crucial to avoid obsessively counting calories, work in consistency with our thoughts, and make conscious efforts to start being okay with how we are, how we look, and how it is enough to engage in non-compensatory behaviour successfully.
Rather than completely restricting and denying ourselves eating/ indulging in the food we like, it is necessary to, instead, eliminate these restrictions, and have a healthy albeit moderate amount of what we like, and what our minds and bodies need.
Understanding emotions, and the difference between physical and emotional hunger
Understanding the spectrum of emotions we experience plays a critical role in following the next step — understanding when we are physically hungry, and when we are experiencing ‘hunger’ due to our emotions. While emotional hunger hits us suddenly and urgently, physical hunger comes to us gradually. When emotionally hungry, we crave specific items — usually processed foods, whereas physical hunger can be satisfied by any food type. An emotionally hungry person will eat mindlessly and won’t stop even when they are full, while a physically hungry person will stop eating when their hunger is satisfied. So, the next time, before reaching out for a snack you crave, ask yourself, “Am I actually hungry? Or am I feeling emotionally uneasy?” If it’s the latter, then, “Am I reaching out for food as a way to escape and avoid certain thoughts?”
Always remember, a healthy mind is as important as a healthy body, and both need food.