Nutritious ingredients and regular meals are essential for physical health, but what and how someone eats can affect their mental health just as much.
A healthy relationship with food is a solid foundation for mental wellness.
According to Laurie Bell, a registered dietitian at Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, “A healthy relationship with food involves accepting all different kinds of food to help feed and nourish your body while enjoying what you eat.”
People dealing with body dysmorphia and depression might punish themselves for enjoying an indulgent meal, forcing themselves, say, to eat celery exclusively in hopes of feeling better about themselves.
On the other hand, people might turn to delicious food as a source of comfort, gorging on buttery, sugary and fatty foods that give them immediate but temporary satisfaction.
Both extremes are harmful, and experts advise maintaining a well-balanced diet that prioritizes nutrition as well as pleasure.
Eating bland, healthy foods can turn what should be an enjoyable and beneficial activity into a chore. Excluding nutritious food from one’s diet can warp the brain’s chemical balance, impairing brain function and worsening mental conditions like depression and anxiety.
Studies show people who eat a more traditional and balanced diet, such as Mediterranean or Japanese, are 25% to 35% less likely to develop depression than those who consume a traditional Western diet full of fats and processed sugar.
The act of making a meal also can be beneficial for mental health, as the act of cooking can stimulate the brain, boost creativity and enhance emotional wellness.
Following COVID-19, the American diet tended to shift away from grains, fruit, lean proteins and dairy and toward fatty and sweet foods. Many Americans have become reliant on and accustomed to unhealthy takeout food or pre-made, processed meals.
Cooking a meal takes time, effort and skill. People who struggle to carve out the time or find the energy to create their own meals miss out on the benefits of this, such as boosting self-esteem and confidence, creative expression, a sense of purpose and mindfulness concerning food.
When people view cooking as a form of self-care, taking time to focus on themselves and their wellness, every recipe can be a gateway to better mental health.
According to Kaylee Crockett, a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, “Self-care means taking time to do things that help people live well and improve their physical health and mental health.”
While many self-care activities involve people doing individual activities where they only focus on themselves, the social aspect of eating also can nourish mental wellness. Feelings of loneliness and isolation often worsen mental illnesses, but group meals can quell or dull these feelings.
Enjoying a meal with someone else builds stronger social connections, creates happy memories and strengthens our relationship with food.
The time of day and specific food also play a role in how beneficial the social aspect of eating is. Researchers exploring the effects of social eating discovered that people feel closer to someone when they eat in the evening, theorizing that low-light environments encourage internal reflection and a sense of vulnerable comfort.
Dining together creates a sense of trust that helps people feel confident in themselves and supported by others, leading to better mental wellness and self-esteem.
These connections can be even stronger when people eat the same food together. The food people eat subconsciously affects their behavior and outlook, and seeing someone eating the same food creates an immediate sense of trust and cooperation.
In the same way that taking the time to cook a meal can boost mental wellness, being mindful while eating can help, too.
Watching TV, using a phone or browsing on a laptop while eating detracts from the emotional and mental benefits of the meal. Multitasking makes it difficult to listen to bodily cues and fully appreciate the food.
Thoughtfully eating and focusing on food is a more nurturing experience that will yield more mental benefits than distracted eating.
With one simple weeknight dinner, people can nourish their physical health, support mental wellness and bond with the people in their lives.
Every meal — even every snack — offers a chance to practice self-care and devote time to your mental wellness.
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