By Cindy Coloma
It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, the kind that slips into your winter schedule when you’re not expecting it. This kind of day commands you to lounge around in your jammies with fluffy socks and bedhead and exactly zero guilt. You scroll through the Netflix menu, looking for something good to watch. Shuffling into the kitchen for a drink of water, you find yourself in a place where you end up more times than you want to admit: in front of an open refrigerator with a blank stare on your face, even though you were nowhere close to hungry.
Why do we do this? The truth is, many of us are tempted to eat all the time even when we’re not hungry. We eat to celebrate, to grieve, when we’re busy and when we’re bored. We’re especially tempted to eat when stressed out. This begs the question, could the food we’re eating when we’re not hungry be affecting our mental outlook on life? Or, to take it a step further, is the food we are eating all the time contributing negatively or positively to our mental health?
Here are some factors that can help answer that question:
- Blood sugar is a factor. When your blood sugar drops, it can leave you feeling tired, depressed and irritable. While the obvious remedy might be to eat more frequently to keep your blood sugar up, you may also want to consider adding slow-release energy foods throughout your day. Pasta, rice, whole grains, nuts, seeds and oats will help keep your sugar levels steady.1
- High sugar consumption can negatively impact your health. According to research, eating too much sugar can lead to problems with depression, addiction to sugar, anxiety and learning and memory issues.2 Sugar sneaks its way into many of the things we eat. Often it’s even found in surprising places like pasta sauce and low-fat salad dressing!
- Eating a rainbow of food can brighten your mood. According to Leslie Korn, therapist and author of The Good Mood Kitchen, people can decrease pain and ease depression simply with the food they eat. Foods like eggs, cherries, sweet potatoes and dark chocolate can be fuel for a healthier brain and a healthier life. She also asserts that foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids may assist in suicide prevention as well as depression treatment. Korn also recommends foods in a variety of colors, which she refers to as a Brainbow, to promote a healthy brain and outlook: red (such as cabbage, radishes, watermelons), orange (like carrots, pumpkins, oranges), yellow (such as bananas and lemons), green (like kale) and white (such as garlic, onion, nuts).3
With these in mind, how do we shift our food habits to see if our mental health improves? Here are a few ideas to try:
- Practice mindful eating. When tempted to eat to fill an emotional need, try practicing mindful eating. This basically means slowing down, eliminating distractions and savoring the experience of eating good food. It sounds pretty simple, but research shows it can prevent binge and emotional eating.4
- Prepare your meals and snacks in advance. Preparing your food for the week can actually go a long way toward avoiding last minute unhealthy decisions such as running through a fast food drive-thru on your way home. Spend a little time cutting up fresh fruit and veggies and separating them into snack-sized portions. Keep nuts and other healthy snacks on hand. Prepare as much of your weekly meals ahead of time as possible, and when it’s time to have dinner you’ll be less likely to make unhealthy choices.
- Understand balance. Honestly, giving yourself a little margin when it comes to food is totally OK. Make every effort to be intentional about the food you eat, but there is no need to be legalistic. Don’t allow yourself to feel overwhelmed or pressured. You will be more successful if you approach food with a healthy outlook as the means to fuel your life, not as a list of rules to follow and check off.
It’s a new year, and a great time to take stock of your nutritional strategy for the months ahead. Life can be stressful and busy, and what we eat and drink can have a significant impact on how we navigate the tough times.
If you find yourself staring mindlessly into the refrigerator, hopefully an already prepared healthy alternative will be close at hand. If you grab a cookie instead, practicing some mindful eating, savoring each bite, can help curb the mindless binging. With these tips, you can kick this year off with a healthier mind by starting with your food.
1 “How Can Food Affect Mood?” Mind, December 2017.
2 Sack, David. “4 Ways Sugar Could Be Harming Your Mental Health.” Psychology Today, September 2, 2013.
3 Elmasry, Faiza. “Brighten Your Mood with a Rainbow of Food.” VOA, October 23, 2017.
4 Iliades, Chris. “6 Ways Food Affects Your Mood.” Everyday Health, Accessed January 14, 2018.