I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately, and it’s impact on mental health. I was fortunate to grow up in a family and at a time and country (Kenya) that had a very healthy approach to food. Here’s an article on how Kenyans eat.
We ate at least three meals a day with snacks in between. Carbohydrates, protein and vegetables were always part of each meal. If one thing was missing for some reason e.g. we didn't have enough money to buy meat then our go to was rice, cabbage, maize and beans. But no meal was ever carbohydrate or vegetable less because those things were always accessible and affordable. Till this day, it is rare for me to eat a meal without all these elements. Brown rice and oatmeal are common staples in my day. Ugly, whole grain bread and potatoes are also regular parts of my weekly meals. Homemade yogurt, nuts and fruit are daily snacks and also added to oatmeal for breakfast.
The range of vegetables is included in every lunch and dinner, and beans and legumes are our common protein, with the occasional chicken, fish or other meat. I love sweet baked goods though I didn’t grow up with them much and don’t have them regularly at our home. When we were growing up dessert was a fruit salad, though I have no problem enjoying sweet desserts when I do have access to them or when I want them.
My daily drinks are water and unsweetened tea. Growing up with these sorts of habits has made it easy to sustain, enjoy a variety of food and not overthink eating. Most meals are tasty and homemade with the occasional dinner out every few weeks. I am thankful that my family and I love and enjoy food.
The other positive thing about growing up in Kenya was that back in the 80s and 90s there was such limited media, so there were no external pressures that I saw or felt around body image. Luckily, we also had a very active sports culture in school – everyone had to swim, participate in PE and there were ongoing games, lots of space to play and run around and hence an in built active lifestyle, which we took for granted. Time with friends (since we only had two TV channels- which were not worth watching), was spent biking, running around, swimming, trying to find adventures or other ways to reduce boredom! Our parents did not have to entertain us.
Unfortunately, food in current U.S. culture has been associated with so much negativity. There are so many diets & misinformation about what to eat. Recently, there has been a backlash against healthy carbohydrates, which has led to avoidance by many people of all carbohydrates. This avoidance and deprivation of carbs. impacts people’s mental health negatively. If you are not eating a balanced diet you are not going to be at your best mentally, or physically. Carbohydrates such as oatmeal, brown rice, whole grain bread, potatoes, and whole grain pasta provide you with vital energy. Researchers have found that carbs. increase the production of Serotonin, a brain chemical that helps us feel good and thus improves our mood, reduces depression, anxiety and anger. High fiber carbohydrates can also help prevent weight gain, improve cardiovascular health and improve or maintain good memory.
If you are in therapy or are feeling depressed, have low energy, poor motivation, irritability, anger or anxiety, I recommend that you first assess the quality of the following basic functions in your life:
1) Are you eating a balanced meal (and staying way from diets)? If you are unsure about whether you are a dieter, read this article.
2) Do you eat freely and easily and get a good amount of healthy carbohydrates, protein, vegetables, fruit, fat and dairy? If you are unsure about this it’s best to consult a Registered Dietitian and avoid looking up diets online. Whether you are an athlete or not, I’d strongly recommend reading The Endurance Diet by Matt Fitzgerald which is not a diet book!
3) Are you sleeping at least eight hours per night?
4) Are you exercising at least 30 minutes – 1 hour per day?
If any of your answers are no, I suggest actively working on addressing these issues. You can still do therapy and focus on other healing techniques but if these basic functions are not where they should be, you are not going to feel well, no matter how long you have been living this way.
If you believe you have no time to include these things, that’s a problem that needs to be addressed quickly. No one else is going to prioritize this for you and your ability to function well, perform your work and social obligations efficiently, will not happen at the highest level without basic self-care.
It can be difficult to make these changes for a variety of factors, which can be addressed in therapy, but remember that feeling better physically, can help alter depression, anxiety, irritability and lack of focus or direction.
As you work to make these positive changes, know that you are fighting against a cultural norm that does not support this. Currently, you are supposed to work constantly, sleep less, “be productive” all the time, have the “perfect” body and keep pushing and pushing yourself. I’d recommend taking time to figure out what you need and how much you want to buy into these values. Only you can make these changes happen. And your well being actually benefits us all. Living in a society of happy, fulfilled, healthy, vibrant, thoughtful, rested people can only lead to positive things for all of us. So, please help support yourselves and each other so that we can break the cycle of depriving ourselves and wearing ourselves out!
As my final example, I am typically in bed by 8.40 pm. and wake up at 4.40 am. so that I have time to exercise, eat breakfast and get ready for work. I run my own business and work full days but I always have an hour off for my home-made lunch. I've made the choice to prioritize my health, family, sports and actually enjoying nature and the adventures that life offers. I was able to get a doctorate degree with sleep (no all nighters were pulled), and I always worked out early in the morning, which forced me to sleep early at night so that I could get up and function! I found that this actually helped me work more efficiently and I had no problem graduating on time.
I say all this because I know it’s do-able. There are certain things you will have to prioritize over others, but I’ve found, and research also supports that these basic things are necessary for our mental and physical health. They help us overcome or get through the disappointments, challenges, traumas and stresses that we inevitably experience in life.
Please let me know if you have questions, thoughts or stories about how changing any of the above habits actually helped you in your life.
Dr. Cory Nyamora is an endurance sports coach with certifications from USAT and USATF, a licensed clinical psychologist, and the founder of Endurance – A Sports & Psychology Center, Inc. He provides endurance coaching for beginner and experienced athletes, as well as psychotherapy services to children, adults, and families.