What’s on your plate?
Achieving Zen, one bite at a time
There are no winners and losers at being mentally healthy. Every once in a while, we all have our own struggles. Mental health is as personal as your personality. Quite literally. But there are some things that we all have in common that can affect us. We feel happy when we see friends, or terrified when we see our bully. But what if all of that is missing due to Covid’s isolation? We’re home, sometimes alone, but always lonely. And all of this can be quite depressing. Sometimes obsessive dieting is used to regain control. And sometimes the opposite is the case: food is used as a coping mechanism. But this isn’t healthy. And not only for diabetes or heart disease. It affects our mental well-being in many ways. The most drastic of which are eating disorders. And indeed, during the pandemic hospitals and doctors have noticed a big increase in younger people being affected by eating disorders. But why? And what can we learn from that for our general mental health as well? And what foods should you eat?
Covid, mental health and eating disorders
Eating disorders are something deeply personal and are associated with many different psychological, social and biological factors. And sadly, the pandemic is affecting all three of those factors at once; spending less time with friends and other; having more stress from school; not being able to reduce stress with friends anymore, and so on. And because the biological factors include dieting and weight-control measures, the approach to food becomes essential as well.
In December 2020, researchers have described three main ways how the Covid measures can lead to eating disorders (EDs):
- Firstly, the disruption of daily routines, less exercise, social isolation, and worse sleep can all lead to weight gain. This in turn could lead to concerns about weight and shape, like with Anorexia.
- Secondly, the constantly bad news can lead to seeking comfort in food, like with Binge Eating Disorder.
- And thirdly, fearing Covid and seeking out ways to improve immunity by diet can lead to obsession with diet. Done wrong it can do more harm than good, both for mental and physical health.
The good news is that there are some psychological therapies that can really help patients. And the even better news is that they can be used for general mental well-being as well, even without eating disorders. One of them involves the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness has been a practice in Buddhism for centuries, and is slowly getting scientific recognition now. It is a form of meditation that aims at recognizing and dealing with emotions when they arise. Even the American Psychological Association now recognizes that mindfulness is a research-proven way to reduce stress. And in 2015, a study published by the Journal of Eating Disorders came up with a training program for patients with EDs. And they found that the students they trained in mindfulness show significant reductions in concerns with weight and shape, and even reduction in eating disorder symptoms. The researchers mentioned that more work is necessary to increase the effectiveness and acceptability of their method, but it is a promising lead nonetheless.
They first introduced the students to mindfulness practice (link to good websites here and here). Essentially, being aware of the present moment and accepting emotions without any judgement are what mindfulness is about. And once the students were trained in it, they could also apply it to food as well. Trying to cut down portions and food are not the solution, however. Rather, noticing the speed of eating, what you are eating, the taste and smell of the food etc. are the goal.
Essentially, mindfulness can tackle the psychological factor of EDs, by better dealing with emotions and reducing stress. And the biological factors by improving the approach to food someone has as a result of that.
And another biological aspect for mental health is the food you eat. So far, this article was talking about howto eat, but what about what to eat? Well, there isn’t a real top 10 list of foods that are good or bad. There are only few foods that are linked with better or worse mental health. And linked means that they are not 100% solid causes, but that there is a huge variety for everyone. For example, milk can affect a lactose intolerant person, but not someone who is not intolerant. Only a few foods that have strong associations for most people:
- high consumption of caffeine and fast-food are linked to worse mental well-being
- exercise and fruit consumption are linked to better mental well-being
And the same study that found those links in December 2020, also found that customizing diet and lifestyle are most important for mental well-being. Foods that are good for you might be bad for someone else, and the other way around. Following a strict diet that somebody else likes might make things worse for you. Both physically because your body isn’t tolerating it, and mentally because of the risk for EDs mentioned before.
Again, take a mindful approach to your diet. Start with just noticing how you feel after you have eaten something, without changing your diet. Then, perhaps slowly start to reduce your caffein or junk food consumption, one cup or one food at a time. Win the war, not the battle. And if you are really feeling bad when eating one or some foods, you should absolutely talk to your parents and your doctor. It is such a complicated subject that it requires decades of experience.
While mental health is always an issue with the pandemic, food can make it better or worse, depending on your approach to it. Mindfulness is a great practice for mental well-being. And although there are certain foods that make us feel better or worse, in the end it is personal. Slowly find what is good for your body, and what is good for your mind. Be mindful of what you eat.
Marsh, S. (2021a, February 11). Doctors warn of ‘tsunami’ of pandemic eating disorders. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/11/doctors-warn-of-tsunami-of-pandemic-eating-disorders
National Eating Disorders Association. (2019, June 26). What are Eating Disorders? https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/what-are-eating-disorders
Rodgers, R. F., et al. (2020). The impact of the COVID ‐19 pandemic on eating disorder risk and symptoms. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 53(7), 1166–1170. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23318
Begdache, L., et al. (2020). Diet, Exercise, Lifestyle, and Mental Distress among Young and Mature Men and Women: A Repeated Cross-Sectional Study. Nutrients, 13(1), 24. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13010024
Neuroscience News. (2021, March 3). Custom Diets Are Essential to Mental Health. https://neurosciencenews.com/custom-diets-mental-health-17945/
Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress. (2019, October 30). American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/mindfulness/meditation
Getting Started with Mindfulness. (2021). Mindful. https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/
Atkinson, M. J., & Wade, T. D. (2015). Mindfulness-based prevention for eating disorders: A school-based cluster randomized controlled study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 48(7), 1024–1037. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.22416