Here’s one thing I’ve learned through my work as a psychotherapist and nutritional therapist: food issues are about much more than food.
On the surface, the act of eating seems like it should be relatively uncomplicated. We need food to survive, so we must eat. However, eating is much more than a biological process aimed at fuelling our bodies – it’s entwined with emotions, traumas, and experiences. And, of course, there are the social, cultural, and identity-related aspects of food to consider.
For some, they can maintain a healthy relationship with food regardless of what life throws at them. For many more, food is a source of stress and confusion that can manifest itself in different ways. Much of the time – because food is so strongly linked to our emotions and identity – any food-related struggles can harm our self-esteem.
Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders
Perhaps the most well-known manifestation of the complex relationship between food and mood is what we call ‘emotional eating’ or ‘comfort eating’ – a form of disordered eating.
In times of stress, grief, boredom, or even joy and celebration, people can turn to food to help regulate how they feel. This coping mechanism can form easily – our brains quickly make the connection between food and comfort, and so a habit is formed. Each time we feel a strong emotion, our automatic response is to reach for some comfort food.
These habits may have been learned in childhood, or they may not develop until our adult years. However, the goal is the same – understand and address the underlying issues that contribute to emotional eating.
Other forms of disordered eating include:
– restrictive eating
– reliance on certain food rituals
– chronic dieting
– orthorexia (an obsession with ‘clean’ eating)
– avoiding entire food groups
– skipping meals
– excessive night-time eating
Eating disorders, on the other hand, include a range of diagnosable mental health conditions characterised by unhealthy relationships with food, body image, and weight. These disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder, extend beyond a mere focus on food and often involve complex psychological and emotional components.
Everyone’s Mental Health is Connected to What they Eat
The connection between food and mental health is perhaps more obvious in cases of people who experience eating disorders or disordered eating.
But, actually, for all of us, our mental health is linked to what we eat. After all, our brain needs certain nutrients to function – like zinc, magnesium, vitamin D, omega 3 … the list goes on.
In fact, there is an entire field of research – nutritional psychiatry – that examines the influence of diet and supplements on mental health. Its origins can be traced back to the 1970s, and since then, many studies have shown a strong link between what we eat and how we feel.
There is research linking diet and depression, anxiety, behavioural problems, bipolar disorder, cognitive impairment, psychological distress, and schizophrenia. And, our nutritional status may impact behaviours that have a knock-on effect on mental health, such as fatigue and sleep difficulties.
Researchers think there are several ways in which food influences mental health, including: getting enough nutrients for brain health; ensuring a healthy gut; the anti-inflammatory effects of a person’s diet; and the antioxidant content of the diet.
Food, Physical Health, and Mental Health
Of course, there are other ways that food is connected to how we feel. One of these is through our physical health.
We all know that a poor diet can contribute to the development of several diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Also, diet can worsen the symptoms of other conditions.
And if we feel unwell physically, then that is bound to impact how we feel mentally. Living with a chronic health condition is challenging in many ways, including in the ways it impacts mood and self-esteem.
Societal and Cultural Links
Our relationship to food is strongly linked to our culture (including our family culture) and societal values. Individual experiences, personal beliefs, and societal expectations all tie into our relationship to food.
What and how we eat can bring up powerful emotions, especially if the way we eat in some way deviates from societal or cultural expectations or norms. Two themes continually come up in my therapy room in relation to this: shame and belonging.
What and how we eat can be a source of shame or pride. People can feel shame associated with food choices, body image, the act of eating itself, or the ability to afford or cook meals (especially in today’s cost of living crisis).
This emotional response can be heightened by other people’s judgements and comparisons, or past experiences, like criticism or bullying.
And, depending on your experiences, food can contribute to a sense of belonging or isolation. Shared meals and communal eating experiences often serve as cultural and social rituals, fostering a sense of connection and belonging within communities. The act of breaking bread together is more than just fuel for the body – it creates opportunities for shared stories, traditions, and bonding.
On the other hand, for some food can contribute to a sense of isolation. This is especially the case for those with eating disorders, restrictive diets, or health-related feeding challenges.
Finding a Healthy Balance
As a practitioner in both psychotherapy and nutritional therapy, I believe that a holistic approach to food issues is necessary to bring balance back into a person’s relationship with food. Having a safe space is essential for people to explore the origins of their food issues, to challenge feelings of shame, and to work on self-esteem.
The goal is to learn to listen to your body, recognise hunger and fullness cues, and savour the experience of eating. In this way, clients can break free from automatic, emotion-driven eating patterns and cultivate a more balanced and intuitive approach to eating.