Relationship between food, mental health
Chido Madzvamutse–Mental Wellness
As discussed in previous articles, mental health is defined as 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.
Our relationship with food and what we eat has a significant impact on our mental well-being. Conversely, the food we eat and our eating habits can greatly influence our physical and mental health.
Positive impact of food and eating habits on mental well-being
Eating is an essential part of life, it forms a crucial part of daily routine as well as significant life events such as weddings, celebrations and funerals. We spend a significant proportion of our time growing food or earning a living to be able to buy food, preparing food and eating.
Most people will typically have up to three meals a day and several snacks in between.
Food is so important it even forms part of our vocabulary about work and money as we describe members of a family or community who are earning a living as being the “breadwinners.”
Eating produces several hormones in our bodies, some of which influence our mood.
Serotonin is released in the intestines and in the brain when we eat and this helps to regulate our mood, our sleep patterns and energy levels.
Dopamine is released in the reward pathway of the brain when we eat and this allows us to experience pleasure when we eat food, particularly food that we like.
Studies have shown that eating nutritious food including plenty of vegetables, fruits and complex high fibre carbohydrates can help improve our mood and promote mental well-being. What, where, when and how we eat is often influenced by our family, our culture and our environment. We often eat meals as families and this can be a time of sharing and bonding which helps build our relationships and social support. 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.
Negative impact of food and eating habits on mental well-being
How and what we eat can however have a detrimental effect on our health and well-being.
Our eating habits can be influenced by our mood and psychological state.
Comfort Eating/ Emotional eating: food and eating is unfortunately used by many as a maladaptive coping mechanism for stress, anxiety or emotional pain.
Common stressors than can cause us to comfort eat include relationship problems, work related stress, and financial problems. Fatty, sugary carbohydrate rich food can temporarily raise natural feel good hormones but can create a habit of turning to food when one is stressed or upset. Emotional eating often leads to guilt and this further worsens the negative emotional state. Emotional eating can lead to over eating, excessive weight gain and consequent health problems linked to being overweight.
Emotional eating is often linked to poor emotional awareness, difficulty talking about, expressing and sharing one’s emotions and challenges controlling one’s emotions.
Restrictive eating habits: while a healthy diet does involve some thoughtfulness about portion sizes of food and the content of our meals, some people are extremely conscious of what they eat and strictly monitor their food. This can lead to severe restrictions on what they eat, harsh rules related to food and eating that they follow and maladaptive habits around food and eating. Food is no longer something that brings pleasure in life but meal times can become stressful and anxiety provoking.
Do I have an eating disorder?
While we all may have some challenges with our eating habits, there are some symptoms and signs that you may be developing an eating disorder:
Do you feel out of control when eating or when presented with certain foods?
Do you feel the urge to eat when you are stressed or upset?
Do you feel the urge to eat even when you are not physically hungry?
Are you increasingly preoccupied with what you eat and your weight
Are you intensely afraid of gaining weight?
Do you constantly worry about your body image?
Do you often restrict what you eat, skipping meals or eating very small amounts?
Mental health problems linked to food and eating habits
Our eating habits can in some cases result in mental health challenges that can affect both our psychological and physical well-being which will need professional intervention.
Binge eating disorder: this 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 of developing diabetes mellitus, hypertension, heart disease and other complications of weight gain.
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 weight to height ratios (or Body Mass Index) of less than 17kg/m2. At this level of weight loss, there will be 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 percent of those struggling with it.
Bulimia nervosa: this is an eating disorder where there are episodes of binge eating however, these binging episodes are followed by inappropriate compensatory behaviour to prevent weight gain that can include self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives, excessive exercise or excessive fasting. Bulimia can result in several physical health problems such as damage to the oesophagus, electrolyte imbalances, heart problems mostly due to the self-induced vomiting.
How can I improve my eating habits to improve my mental well-being?
Become more aware of your emotions and seek professional help for emotional problems early. Be mindful of your body image and seek help if you are excessively preoccupied about your body shape and size
Be conscious, attentive and mindful of what you eat. Avoid distractions like television or mobile phones during meal times. Strive to eat with friends and family as this fosters healthier habits.
Eat a healthy diet with a wide range of foods, avoid severe restrictions, moderation is key.
Eat regular meals and avoid skipping meals on a regular basis.
Maintain an active lifestyle and avoid being excessively sedentary.
If you think that you or someone you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.
l Association of Healthcare Funders of Zimbabwe (AHFoZ) article written by Dr Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse, Consultant Psychiatrist.
Feedback Dr Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse +263714987729)
(www.ahfoz.org ; [email protected])