Nutritious ingredients and regular meals are essential for physical health, but what and how someone eats can affect their mental health just as much. Not only does it matter what goes into one's body, but it is also the way in which someone prepares and enjoys a meal that can improve their mental wellness and contribute to a positive self-care routine.
A healthy relationship with food is a solid foundation for mental wellness. According to Laurie Bell, a Registered Dietitian at the 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.”
How one creates and enjoys meals can be as impactful on their mental health as the actual food they consume, making every meal a chance to practice mindfulness and self-care.
How Food Impacts The Brain
Approximately 95% of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that creates a feeling of happiness and satisfaction, the human brain produces stems from the gut, showcasing the strong connection between food and emotional well-being. Many people struggling with mental and emotional problems, such as depression or anxiety, develop a poor relationship with food.
People dealing with body dysmorphia and depression may begin to punish themselves for enjoying an indulgent meal, forcing themselves to eat celery exclusively in the hopes of feeling better about themselves.
On the other hand, people may turn to delicious food as a source of comfort, gorging themselves on buttery, sugary, and fatty foods that give them immediate but temporary satisfaction.
Both of these extremes are harmful, and experts advise people to create 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 that 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.
While a deep-fried meal may make someone suffering from depression feel better in the moment, the long-term effects of an unhealthy diet will only worsen their symptoms.
Self-Care in The Kitchen
As mentioned, eating a well-balanced diet is essential for a healthy brain, leading to high energy levels and better moods. However, the making of the meal can also be highly 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 shifted away from grains, fruit, lean proteins, and dairy and toward fatty, sugary, and sweet food. Many Americans have become reliant on and accustomed to unhealthy take-out food or pre-made, processed meals, disconnecting people from the food they put in their bodies.
Cooking a meal takes time, effort, and skill, all of which contribute to the end goal of one nourishing their body. Those who struggle to carve out the time or find the energy to create their own meals miss out on the benefits of this activity, including boosted self-esteem and confidence, creative expression, a sense of purpose, and mindfulness concerning food.
The mental stimulation that comes from planning a meal, gathering the ingredients, executing the recipe, and plating the final product can do wonders to improve one's relationship with their meal.
When one views cooking as a form of self-care, taking time out of their day to focus on themselves and their wellness, every recipe can be a gateway to better mental health. If someone approaches cooking as a chore, even if it is just boiling an egg, it creates a negative relationship with their food that can plague them for a lifetime.
According to Kaylee Crockett, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Family and Community Medicine, “Self-care means taking time to do things that help people live well and improve their physical health and mental health.” Cooking checks all these boxes, as it requires one to designate time just for themselves while working toward something that will nourish their body and mind.
The Social Aspect of Eating
While many self-care activities involve people doing individual activities where they only focus on themselves, the social aspect of eating can also nourish one's mental wellness. Feelings of loneliness and isolation often worsen mental illnesses, but group meals can quell or dull these feelings.
People can feel close to others via various activities, but enjoying a meal with someone else builds stronger social connections, creates happy memories for someone to return to, and positively strengthens one's 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.
In 2017, Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford’s Experimental Psychology department, explained, “We know from previous studies that social networks are important in combating mental and physical illness… having a meal together was an important way of making or reinforcing these social networks. In these increasingly fraught times, when community cohesion is ever more important, making time for and joining in communal meals is perhaps the single most important thing we can do – both for our own health and wellbeing and for that of the wider community.”
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, as it creates an opportunity for them to bond over a shared sensory experience. 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.
Mindfulness in Every Meal
In the same way that taking the time to cook a meal can boost mental wellness, being mindful while eating can also improve one's mental health and relationship with food.
Watching TV, using a phone, or browsing on a laptop while eating detracts from the emotional and mental benefits of the meal. This type of multi-tasking 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, a person can nourish their physical health, support mental wellness, and bond with the people in their life. Food can help people feel closer to those around them and boost self-esteem and self-confidence, creating a catalyst for improved moods, lessened mental illness symptoms, and a higher quality of life.
Every meal, and even every snack, is a chance to practice self-care and devote time to one's mental wellness.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.