The Way To Your Head Is Also Through Your Gut
Your food choices dictate far more of your life than you might think. Here’s how to keep things in line.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 4, 2022
When we talk about the overall health of our psyche, food is not the first thing that comes up in conversation. Pop culture and social media frame things like childhood trauma, toxic relationships, and problematic personalities as the face of mental illness. As such, more common reasons like consistently poor diet and lifestyle choices often go unnoticed.
Yes, you read that right. Food, hunger, and diet play a much larger role when it comes to our mental health than we might think. The following are two research-backed examples of how our food habits can impact our mental health.
#1. Food choices can lead to social isolation
There are as many types of diets and food restrictions in the world today as there are types of food. There's veganism, vegetarianism, pescetarianism, dairy-free, and gluten-free diets, just to name a few.
Whether this abundance of options is good or bad for our mental health is difficult to say. There is research, however, that shows that diets with very specific food restrictions can have the unintended consequence of increasing feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
"Food consumption is an inherently social activity, as people often acquire, prepare, and eat food in social contexts," state researchers Kaitlin Woolley, Ayelet Fishbach, and Rongham Michelle Wang. "We found that food restrictions predict loneliness. People who are unable to eat what others eat, to some extent, are less able to bond with others over the meal."
The researchers reported that the relationship between food restriction and loneliness was equivalent in magnitude to the association between being unmarried and loneliness, which they also measured in the study.
"Both food restrictions and loneliness are societal problems on the rise; this research found that they may be related epidemics," they suggest.
If you think that your food restrictions are getting in the way of your social life and making you lonelier, it may be time to have a conversation with your loved ones to ask them to make space for it in their lives. This could mean that they will be mindful of your dietary restriction and stock up on things that you can have or even plan social gatherings at eateries that have multiple diet options on their menu.
Alternatively, there may be areas where you could make food compromises that make it easier for your family or friend group to coordinate a shared meal that is enjoyed by all. Surely, many parents reading this will have experience in this regard, perhaps in the form of mac-and-cheese and juice box dinner night or some other dubiously healthy but child-approved combination.
#2. Extreme healthy eating can be unhealthy
Weight loss and a thin body are both considered to be features of a healthy person in our society. Such a narrow consideration is a fairly reductive way to view health and wellness. Moreover, the pursuit of a slim body can lead to several mental health conditions, including eating disorders.
Orthorexia is a condition associated with significant dietary restrictions including the omission of entire food groups. Orthorectics tend not to consume food that has been processed with pesticides, herbicides, or artificial substances, and they are highly worried about the techniques and materials involved in food preparation. Sound familiar?
Simply put, orthorexia is such an extreme form of 'healthy' eating, it's unhealthy.
"Orthorexia nervosa is a form of eating disorder that can easily hide behind the premise of clean eating or healthy eating," explains Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, chief medical officer of Within Health.
According to Oliver-Pyatt, the pursuit of health for orthorectics turns into somewhat of a mechanical experience.
"The social aspect of eating and enjoyment of eating is considered irrelevant to the sufferer, who will forgo social interactions and potentially meaningful and important aspects of life to pursue healthy eating," she says. "The hyper-focus on the ingredients in foods devoids the person from the very real human, lived, and joyful experience of eating."
For people at risk of developing this condition, Oliver-Pyatt suggests focusing on fixing one's relationship with food by practicing what she calls 'internal regulation.'
"When our eating becomes internally regulated (which we call mindful eating), our eating patterns shift in such a way that we are neither over nor under-eating," she says. "The orchestra of neurotransmitters and hormones that connect the brain and gut, and body, can all interact and guide us toward eating according to our biological and even, yes, our psychological needs."
Conclusion: While it may sound trite, you are indeed what you eat – even when it comes to your mental health. Research on diet and its effects on our mind points to a reality that very often goes ignored: mental health is not just about addressing your emotions in therapy, it is also about maintaining a healthy lifestyle.