Food: A Mental Health Tool

Maddie Morton


July 9, 2022

* If you don’t have time to read the entire article I recommend reading the takeaways at the end!*

In a world where we are constantly being told what we should be eating and different diets to strive for in order to look and feel a certain way, it can feel like you are always making the wrong choices. Well, I’m happy to let you know that diet culture is wrong, not you. You do not need a diet to have a healthy relationship with food. You do not need to eat certain things to have a healthy relationship with food. A healthy relationship with food is eating what makes you feel good and not labeling any food as good or bad. Instead one must look at all food as something that nourishes your body and helps you survive. A healthy relationship with food is all about balance and eating a variety of different foods because food is beautiful! Studies have shown that to develop healthy relationships with food one should have balanced eating patterns. Meaning that it’s okay to have an açaí bowl for breakfast one day and a donut for breakfast the next day, but we shouldn’t shame ourselves for indulging sometimes. We shouldn’t feel guilty after we eat. That all being said, we do know healthier, unprocessed foods are undeniably better for our mental and physical health. Science tells us this!

Without a doubt, there is a strong connection between food and the overall mental health of human beings. Therefore, it is no surprise that research has found that certain dietary patterns are linked to certain mental illnesses, especially since processed foods and refined sugars can impair brain function and worsen symptoms of mental illnesses like depression. That being said, food can also be used to treat mental illnesses. Processed and refined foods are some of the worst ways to nourish and energize your body and brain. However, there is absolutely no need to feel guilty for consuming these harmful substances!! They are addictive. It is also very hard to break old habits so you can’t just wake up one day and decide it is time to eat healthily. However, just by reading this article, you are starting your journey of having a healthier relationship with food. Again, please do not feel guilty about your past or current eating habits. There is a reason why you're eating certain foods even if they are not good for your health, whether that be because unhealthy options are addicting, more convenient, socially inspired, anxiety-induced, or just out of habit.

What’s beautiful is that like all things in life, our relationships with food are not perfect and they never will be; however, we can all have healthy relationships with food. People shouldn’t place so much blame on themselves for having bad relationships with food because we have grown up in a culture where diets are promoted and that teaches us to follow a set of rules and control our bodies, instead of just trusting our bodies to make decisions. The good news is that a healthy relationship with food is absolutely achievable and can lead to a life of contentment with food, but it does take time and trial and error. Obsession, restriction, and rules must be absent in order to heal your relationship with food. Obsession surrounding food and diets disconnect you from your body and its inherent wisdom. That’s right. Our bodies are wise and they know what they are doing. So listen to yours. Actually being conscious of each bite you take and enjoying the taste and texture of everything you are eating is also important when trying to build a better relationship with food. Mindful eating encourages people to eat slowly, pay attention to the food they consume, check their levels of satiety, and listen to their bodies. Eating food for a certain outcome, other than satisfying your hunger and feeling good, is not mindful eating. In Japan, they engage in the practice of chewing their food 20 times before swallowing. As well, noticing how the foods make you feel an hour after you eat is important to be aware of. Do you feel sick after eating Chick-fil-A? There’s probably a reason. That reason is that the food is highly processed. But yet, you go back. Why? Because it's addictive! So again, do not feel guilty for bad eating habits. These unprocessed foods were designed for you to keep going back and waiting for more. It is not your fault.

A great professional healthy eating recommendation includes combining carbohydrates, fats, and proteins at every meal. For instance, you can pair scrambled eggs (protein) and avocado (healthy fat) with a whole grain pancake (carbohydrate) for a balanced, healthy breakfast. Combining these nutrients allows you to maintain a healthy weight because it allows for fewer cravings and the body feels satiety. If you only have one of these macronutrients in a meal, it’s digested quickly and then you’re hungry again not long after. Therefore, when people try to conserve what they’re eating, it’s counterintuitive because those calories they’re not consuming will just be consumed somewhere else. That’s why it’s important to consume healthy, nutrient-dense calories in your meals so you don't indulge in mindless snacking later on. Snacks should also always be balanced. For instance, instead of eating just a banana, it’s even better to eat a banana with peanut butter because you are getting your carbohydrate (banana) and protein and healthy fat (peanut butter) and it will keep you fuller for a longer time.

Keep in mind these are all food recommendations, not food requirements. You’re not required to eat certain substances in order to have a good relationship with food. There’s not a specific guide to healthy eating. Instead of cutting foods out of your diet, restricting certain foods, or forcing yourself to only eat certain types of food, you should eat what makes you feel good, both physically and mentally. You should experiment with different foods and recipes. You should enjoy the foods you are eating. You should be nourishing your mind, body, and soul. However, you must remember that changing the way you eat and incorporating healthier foods into your diet is not going to change your mood overnight. Where do you go from here? Start small. Don’t try and start a diet or throw out all of the food in your pantry. Start making swaps. Small healthy food swaps are the best way to start incorporating more healthier choices into your diet. Start small but try and start now. You know what they say.. there is no better time than the present!


My number one piece of advice would be to use the power of food to your advantage to better both your physical and mental health. Food is powerful! Balance is key in maintaining a healthy relationship with food, but remember that you can enjoy all foods on a balanced diet, even donuts, and you should not have to feel guilty. Eat a variety of different foods, experiment with different foods, do not restrict any foods, and most importantly engage in mindful eating. Be mindful of what you're consuming, what effect it has on your body, and how it makes you feel (both while you're eating it and hours and days afterward). As well, reach out to your loved ones if you are struggling with your relationship with food in any way. Have open conversations with friends and family about the struggles of eating and encourage them to do the same. Because trust me, everyone struggles! You are not alone. Obtaining a healthy relationship with food will take time, but remember that it is possible and that the benefits are well worth it :)


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Maddie Morton

Maddie Morton (she/her/hers) is a rising sophomore at Holy Cross and has been an intern at Promly since November 2020. She is a Psychology major and loves working at Promly because she feels like she's a part of something that is going to change the world of mental health.