Can Food Ease My Anxiety and Depression?
Full disclosure - I wear two hats at work. I am a Health Coach and a Psychotherapist, so this topic - looking at the impact that food has on our mental health - is super exciting to me!
We have always known intuitively that how we eat is connected with how we feel. As a therapist, I have worked with many people who use food to help them manage emotions - who hasn’t craved chocolate when they are feeling sad, or chips when they are anxious, or found themselves opening the fridge for the 100th time when they are bored? The hardest one for me is the compulsion to use food as a procrastination tool. When I have something to do that needs my full attention and brain power (like writing this blog!), I feel compelled to eat. I understand the reasons behind this compulsion - it takes up time, it provides me with a task I can manage and complete (thus giving me a feeling of accomplishment), and, in theory, it gives me energy to tackle the big project ahead. But, the reality is that I am not actually hungry when I am consuming food at those times and, therefore, I am teaching myself to override my body’s hunger/satiety signals, to tune out the messages my body is sending out. My goal, personally and when I work with clients, is to learn to tune into my body, to name the feelings I am trying to manage with food, to recognize the way that emotion feels in my body and then, ultimately, to find alternate ways of managing those emotions. Using food to manage feelings has unwanted consequences that can negatively impact my overall health. So, learning to listen to and honor the messages my body is sending out is hugely important so I don’t fall into the trap of using food to help manage my emotions.
How Food Can Be Used To Regulate Emotions?
Clearly, the idea that food is used to regulate emotions is one that is well studied and well-known. What is new, and is super exciting, is that more and more studies are demonstrating that not only does our mood effect our food choices, but our food choices impact our mood! How cool is that!? That means that we have a better understanding of what the foods are doing in our bodies and how certain foods can increase feelings of depression and anxiety. And, taking it a step further, it means that we have more control over our moods than we previosly believed! Imagine the power in that! Once I understand that eating a big slice of cake actually increases my feelings of anxiety (instead of making me feel better), I can make a more informed decision about whether or not to indulge. And, if I choose to eat it, I then have a better understanding of why I am feeling anxious later in the day or having trouble falling asleep that night. The more times I recognize the negative impact of the cake, the less likely I am to continue to choose to eat it. And, it works in the other direction as well - there are actually certain foods that decrease feelings of depression and anxiety!
Understanding The Connection Between What We Eat And How We Feel Emotionally
There is so much power in the basic understanding of the connection between what we eat and how we feel emotionally! For those of you who are craving (ha ha) a little more information about which foods cause depression and anxiety and which foods decrease symptoms, here is a general rule of thumb: foods that cause inflammation in our systems are connected with an increase in depressive symptoms. These are foods that are high in sugar and simple carbs (think candy, soda, cakes, cookies), high in omega-6 fatty acids and trans fats (sunflower, corn, soy and cottonseed oils), and processed meats (hot dogs, sausage, lunch meats, and bacon). These foods tend to also be low in fiber, low in omega-3 fatty acids and low in nutrients. Just cutting down on some of these foods can have a powerful impact on your mood!
Foods That Can Reduce Anxiety and Depression
The next obvious question is, “what SHOULD I be eating?” And, the general answer is that we should all be eating mostly whole foods without additives. These are foods that are not processed and don’t contain additives or artificial substances. Obviously, all fruits and vegetables fall into this category, but so does fish, chicken (no, not the nuggets!), meat (not processed), eggs, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fermented dairy (yogurt, kefir), olive oil and dark chocolate (yay!).
Believe me, I know the idea of eating this way all the time is overwhelming. I mean, who has time to shop for, prep and cook meals made with whole foods every day? Not many people! So, when I work with my clients, we start small. You would be amazed at how good you feel if you can make one or two small changes that you are able to sustain over time! Just replacing soda with water makes a huge difference! And, you don’t need to quit soda cold turkey - start by simply increasing your water intake throughout the day. If you focus on drinking half of your body weight in ounces of water, you will find that you crave soda less. And then maybe you make it a goal to add one vegetable to your dinner, and then to your lunch, etc. You get the picture - success builds on success and, when you begin to feel better physically, your mood improves, your energy level increases, you start to move your body more, and then you eventually get to a place where you feel strong, healthy and empowered!
Can you tell that I am passionate about this topic? I truly believe that taking care of our physical health significantly improves our mental health! If you are interested in talking about how you can begin making some of these changes, contact me and let’s talk!
And, if you want to read more about this topic, check out Dr. Drew Ramsey’s book Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety.