Food and mood, how our eating habits influence our mental wellbeing

Mental health is a critical component of individual, family, community and national wellbeing and prosperity.

Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.

Mental health is a critical component of individual, family, community and national wellbeing and prosperity.

Eating is an essential part of daily life and our life routine.

Food is a crucial part of life events and obtaining, preparing and consuming food takes up a great proportion of our lives.

Our relationship with food has a significant effect on our mood and mental wellbeing and our mental state can also affect our appetite and relationship with food. What is your relationship with food?

Can my diet and eating affect my mental wellbeing?

  1. Food, energy and mood: food provide us with energy, which allows us to be active and go about our daily chores. If we haven’t eaten well we may not only feel tired or fatigued, we often may also get irritable and even aggressive. Most of us have felt this feeling of ‘hangriness’ (hunger and anger)
  2. Very restrictive diets: when we are extremely conscious of what we eat and strictly monitor food portions or develop harsh rules related to food and eating, this can affect our mood and wellbeing. Food is no longer something that brings pleasure in life but something stressful and anxiety provoking.
  3. Hormones, brain chemicals and food: the foods we eat influence the secretion of hormones and neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that can in turn influence our mood. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates our mood, our energy levels, our sleep patterns even our motivation and drive.

Serotonin is released in the brain but also in the gastrointestinal tract and the food we eat can influence Serotonin production. Another brain chemical, dopamine is released when we eat particularly food that we like. Dopamine allows us to experience pleasure when we eat and helps us maintain our appetite

  1. Mediterranean diets and mood: food rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes and fish have been found to help improve mood in patients with severe depression in addition to their medication and counselling interventions
  2. What, where, when and how we eat: Meals eaten with family and friends helps to build our social support and strengthens our relationships. Studies have shown that families that eat at least one meal together each day can help strengthen family relationships and increase communication skills and self-esteem of children and foster healthier eating habits for all family members.

How do mental health conditions affect eating habits?

  1. Depression: affects our mood, energy levels and motivation but can also affect appetite and eating habits. Most people with depression will struggle with poor appetite and disinterest in food leading to weight loss however in atypical depression, those affected may have an increase appetite, may comfort eat and gain weight.
  2. Anxiety: severe stress and anxiety can result in poor appetite and difficulties in eating. Anxiety can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, indigestion, or diarrhoea which can make it difficult to eat normally.
  3. Alcohol and substance use: dependence on alcohol and substances can lead to weight loss as those affected neglect their self-care and nutrition.
  4. Emotional eating: food may become a maladaptive coping mechanism for stress, anxiety or emotional pain. Sweet, carbohydrate rich food can temporarily raise natural feel good hormones and make us feel good. Emotional eating often leads to guilt and shame. Emotional eating often linked to poor emotional awareness, difficulty talking about, expressing and sharing one’s emotions and challenges controlling one’s emotions.
  5. Binge eating disorder: is an eating disorder where one eats large amounts of food in a short period, eating much more rapidly than normal, eating until feeling uncomfortably full, eating large amounts of food even when not feeling physically hungry, eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating. Binge eating can result in one feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating and often leads to excessive weight gain and obesity. Binge eating increases the risk for developing diabetes mellitus, hypertension, heart disease and other complications of weight gain.
  6. Anorexia nervosa: this is an eating disorder where one is preoccupied with what they eat and have developed an intense fear of gaining weight. Anorexia is characterised by a distorted body image and despite excessive sometimes life threatening weight loss, one will still feel they are overweight or ‘fat’. Eating habits are extremely restrictive and one may exercise excessively leading to very low body weight and many physical complications such as fatigue, frequent fainting, heart problems, kidney failure, muscle weakness, hormonal dysfunction and amenorrhea. If left untreated anorexia can result in death in close to 20% of those struggling with it.
  7. Bulimia nervosa: this is an eating disorder where there is episodes of binge eating however these binging episodes are followed by inappropriate compensatory behavior to prevent weight gain that can include self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives abuse, excessive exercise or excessive fasting. Bulimia can result in several physical health problems such as damage to the esophagus, electrolyte imbalances, heart problems mostly due to the self-induced vomiting.

How can I eat better for better mental wellbeing?

  1. Be aware of your emotions and find healthy ways to express them. Avoid eating or drinking alcohol for emotional comfort
  2. Be conscious, attentive and mindful of what you eat.
  3. Aim to eat a nutritious, balanced diet and avoid skipping meals, very restrictive diets
  4. Eat meals with family and friend, avoid distractions like television or mobile phones during meal times to allow you to be more mindful of what you eat.
  5. Seek professional help for body image issues

Food security and mental wellbeing

When we are struggling to obtain sufficient food for ourselves and our families, we can become stressed and anxious.

The insecurity of not knowing when your next meal will come from can be overwhelming and can lead to a deterioration in mental wellbeing.

The indignity of having to asking for or beg for food can also affect mental wellbeing. Food security is therefore an essential part of maintaining mental wellbeing in our communities.

Sustainable ways to produce one’s own food or the means to work to earn a decent living are critical to promoting mental wellbeing and preventing mental ill health.

If you think that you or someone that you know may be struggling with a mental health challenge, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.

  • Dr Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse is a consultant psychiatrist. Feedback:  WhatsApp: +263777727332

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