When we talk about “healthy eating” we are usually talking about a way of eating that benefits our physical health.
Proper nutrition is key for growth, development, reproduction, and maintenance of health. We consume calories for energy, and we consume nutrients for their direct effects on our health.
At the most basic level, whole, unprocessed foods such as fruit, vegetables, and whole grains provide us with energy, macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds that allow us to survive and reproduce.
Our nutrient requirements vary based on factors such as age, height, weight, and activity level. Parents often worry about whether their young children are eating enough to grow properly, whereas adults often try to limit their intake to control their weight.
We even consume foods to prevent or treat disease. For instance, certain foods and spices are consumed for their anti-inflammatory and, therefore, “anti-aging” or “anti-cancer” properties, such as raw cruciferous vegetables which contain sulforaphane. Sulforaphane impacts Nrf2, which regulates the expression of proteins that protect against oxidative damage from inflammation1.
By eating to meet nutritional needs, we eat to impact our physical health.
What About Eating for Mental Health?
So, what do we mean when we say “eating for mental health”? We don’t always choose foods because of their nutrient content, but that doesn’t mean those foods can’t provide benefits to our health.
We might choose to eat certain foods because they’re comforting or nostalgic or simply because they taste good. Preparing a meal for family or friends is a way to nurture and show compassion. Enjoying a meal with others provides a platform for socializing.
Certain foods have specific meanings as well. For example, we might consume cake on someone’s birthday simply because it is a tradition and a way of celebrating. Black coffee and tea do not provide us with nutrients, but they hold a place in many of our diets for many reasons, including their role in socialization.
Food and Culture
Food choices are shaped by more than the foods that are available and accessible to us; food choice is also a matter of cultural norms defining what is appropriate. There is a logic to what we consume, and that logic is guided by cultural prescriptions.
Cultural “food rules”2 exist as codes in which patterns of culture are embedded. Cuisines can be seen as “cultural toolkits” that are structured yet can be adapted depending on which foods are available3.
Cultural food choices can also change over time due to factors such as seasonality, globalization, shifting social structures, and ideologies. Cultural food rules are often ignored when we talk about healthy eating, but comfort foods may be helpful with homesickness or loneliness4, and healthful, traditional foods can help prevent chronic diseases5.
A “Western diet” full of highly processed, refined, sugary, fatty foods is associated not only with poor physical health outcomes but also mental health outcomes such as depression and anxiety6.
Balancing Physical and Mental Health
Consider a scale with physical health on one side and mental health on the other. Healthy eating isn’t achieved when one side of the balance is overloaded but rather when the two sides are perfectly balanced.
The appropriate balance looks different for each person, but it always involves a certain amount of contribution from each side. It’s easy to end up tipping the balance in one direction when we set extreme goals and follow extreme paths to get to those goals.
For example, we might chase physical health at the expense of mental health by tracking every gram of food we consume and spending every waking (and sleeping) minute worrying about food.
Alternately, we might let go of physical health in pursuit of mental health by making excuses that we can’t eat nutrient-dense foods because we want to “enjoy life” by eating only high-fat, high-sugar foods.
While it’s easy to fall into one of these extreme categories, it is possible to balance all aspects of our diet to achieve optimal, balanced health. Just remember that health doesn’t exist when we pursue one of the extremes; health is a balance that is achievable between the two extremes.
Finding Your Balance
One of the big controversies is whether you can track calories and/or macronutrients and still benefit your mental health. It’s important to note that two people can adopt the same diet strategies, and one can feel deprived and stressed while the other is thriving and enjoying life.
If you are in a place where you feel like you can’t participate in normal life unless you have complete control over what you’re eating, then it might be time to reconsider your dietary approach. However, if you love structure and genuinely enjoy weighing everything you eat, then that’s another story. Tracking what you eat is a luxury, not a sacrifice. It should complement your lifestyle, not detract from it.
Additionally, many of us fail to acknowledge the fact that there are many ways to track what we eat, and some are more mentally taxing than others. You can use a food scale, rely on nutrition labels, or use visual cues, such as one palm size of meat being a portion for women and two palm sizes of meat being a portion for men.
Weighing food is the most accurate of these three methods, but the most accurate doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best fit for you.
Furthermore, you can choose to track macronutrients and micronutrients, macronutrients only, calories only, or some combination. You can choose to track your intake to the exact gram or calorie, or you can choose to fall within a range for any of these values, such as aiming for 250-270g carbohydrates per day rather than 253g carbohydrates per day.
If your goal is not related to body composition or weight, you do not need to track what you eat. Simply aim for a diet that is balanced, varied, and full of nutrient-dense foods. And even if your goal is related to body weight or composition, it isn’t necessary to track to the gram. Despite our best efforts, it is often the case that we aren’t as accurate as we think we are when we track to the exact gram anyway.
Applying it to Your Diet
Whether you’re prepping for a competition or just trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle, balancing enjoyment and fulfillment with your goals is completely achievable. As long as you understand basic nutrition principles and know how much you need to eat to reach your goals, you can keep track of whatever you eat at restaurants, social events, and other special occasions and still make sure you hit your calorie and nutrient goals.
You can prepare your own meals and also eat meals made by other people. Eating meals for which you don’t know the exact nutrient content won’t necessarily affect your progress in a negative way, and if doing so lifts a psychological burden, it might actually help.
For some, thinking about food all the time can be detrimental to mental health. It’s important to know your own boundaries and to seek help from a professional if you find yourself crossing those boundaries and negatively impacting your mental or physical health. There are many ways to achieve your fitness goals, and none of them should be at the expense of your physical or mental health.
- Ma Q. Role of Nrf2 in Oxidative Stress and Toxicity. Annu Rev Pharmacol Toxicol. 2013;53:401-426. doi:10.1146/annurev-pharmtox-011112-140320
- Douglas M. Food in the Social Order: Studies of Food and Festivities in Three American Communities. Russell Sage Foundation; 1984. http://agris.fao.org/agris-search/search.do?recordID=US8817541. Accessed April 10, 2018.
- Turner BL, Maes K, Sweeney J, & Armelagos G. Human Evolution, Diet, and Nutrition: When the Body Meets the Buffet. In: Evolutionary Medicine and Health. Oxford University Press, New York, NY; 2008:55-71.
- Troisi JD, Gabriel S. Chicken soup really is good for the soul: “comfort food” fulfills the need to belong. Psychol Sci. 2011;22(6):747-753. doi:10.1177/0956797611407931
- Trichopoulou A. Mediterranean diet, traditional foods, and health: evidence from the Greek EPIC cohort. Food Nutr Bull. 2007;28(2):236-240. doi:10.1177/156482650702800213
- Jacka, F.N. et al (2010) Association of western and traditional diets with depression and anxiety in women. American Journal of Psychiatry, 2010; 167: 305-311.