When I was small, my favorite food was mandarin oranges. At least once a day, but as many times as they were offered, I’d tuck into my oranges with all the delight of a child with a bag of candy. I loved them then (and still do), so much that my mother used to regularly hand them to me with a smile and say, “If you’re not careful, you’re going to turn into a mandarin orange”. I’d picture myself turning orange, becoming spherical like Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka, and rolling into the grocery store for more mandarin oranges.
“You are what you eat,” she’d say, and I think it was a warning, or maybe a joke, but she wasn’t entirely wrong…
In many ways, we are the things we eat. Not literally, of course. I was never going to turn into a mandarin orange any more than you’ll turn into your kale salad or that banana bread you can’t resist. Even still, our nutrition is integrally tied to the way we fuel not just our bodies but our minds too. Tailoring your nutrition to your body’s needs won’t lead to a mental health miracle but it will support your journey toward mental wellness in a variety of positive ways.
Pay attention to how your diet makes you feel
Have you ever noticed how your snacks and meals make you feel? The thoughts and feelings you have after eating can help you demystify the way your body responds to those foods. As we pay attention to them, we can begin making those fundamental connections about what our body needs to operate at its best. Sometimes those connections are obvious but if nothing becomes apparent quickly, try keeping a food journal to draw connections between the input of your mouth and the output of your mind.
What does a healthy relationship between diet and mental health look like?
There are a couple of prominent names for the connection between the way we think and feel, and the food we eat.
The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is the name for the pathways in your gastrointestinal tract that send messages back to your brain. Over 100 billion cells are responsible for navigating the way your brain processes the food you put into your gut. The communication between these two systems is called the Gut-Brain Connection. While this moniker may not be very eloquent, the ENS is capable of letting your mind know how your body is feeling through things like big shifts of mood, or alternatively, responding to shifts of mood with feelings of nausea or abdominal pain. The awareness of this means we can use your gut’s responses to alter the way your brain receives information and cultivate a more positive relationship.
Find yourself craving particular foods for comfort when you are feeling overwhelmed or upset? Stressors to our mood can trigger changes in our diet and oftentimes, those changes don’t do us many favors. Instead, they perpetuate a vicious cycle of low nutrient foods reinforcing the low-energy moods we’re feeling and the association becomes ever-stronger. The food we consume alters our body chemistry, which alters our brain chemistry and can signal patterns of behavior that may not be right for you in the long term.
The food-mood connection is both a theory and a book that uses research to examine the ways that the things we eat influence the way we feel.
Reviewing the nutritional profile of many whole foods can help you select foods that complement your goals. For example, foods rich in carbohydrates help you feel full and energized for brief periods of time while protein-dense foods help balance the carb slump with a more stable slow-burn energy release.
Balanced Diet; Balanced Mental Health
Balancing your diet is an important facet of your mental health but worries about getting started can present as a huge barrier. If you are feeling the strain of potential cost or finding the things you need to make these elaborate “good mood” meals, you don’t have to be. Extravagance appears in every nutritional space but it isn’t required to have a diet that establishes a solid foundation for your mental health.
There are a number of diets and nutritional profiles you can tailor to your needs at every level of accessibility. Whether you are considering going vegan or tracking your macros to get a balanced level of mental energy for whatever comes your way, there are options to try.
Much like recovery, the process of meeting your mind and body in a healthy space will be trial and error. Don’t be afraid to try something new, or to admit a new thing works better- or worse- than you anticipated. Plans change and that flexibility in listening to your body will be the key to your success in a supported and successful healing of your relationships inside yourself.