There is a connection between mental health and what we eat. Food can be a surrogate for our emotional needs. We could say that you are what you eat, but the truth is more complicated than that. Our food habits often mirror how we’re doing emotionally-whether it’s as simple as eating when we’re hungry or tired or using food to respond to stress in our lives.
We should “trust our gut” when it comes to food. We have a connection with what we eat, which is not only about physiological needs but also emotional ones.
Food has been used historically in many cultures for social bonding, magic rituals, ceremonies of celebration or mourning — all within the context of spirituality. Food plays a huge part in our life, and it helps us bring meaning to our experiences. To study the connection between mental health and food, it’s important that we ask patients about their relationship with food. Food habits can often mirror how one is doing emotionally.
Eating disorders can be a result of multiple factors, including cultural pressures and social expectations. One study found that many people with eating disorders have an underlying personality disorder like obsessive-compulsive disorder or borderline personality traits. Eating disorders typically begin in adolescence but are being recognized more often among older adults as well.
Of the up to 90 percent of cases diagnosed each year, most sufferers are female — though men account for 10 percent. In this article, I’ll explore some of the connections between mental health and diet, emphasizing how these relationships affect people who struggle with eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.
On the surface level, both anorexia nervosa and bulimia are very different. An individual with anorexia appears to starve themselves from food, and the individual with bulimia tends to go through binge eating and subsequent purging. Anorexia nervosa is a deadly eating disorder that often results in the individual’s life being impeded by their behavior around food restriction, constant obsession over body image and negative feelings associated with these matters. The disorder affects roughly 1 percent of women in America, but because there is underreporting among marginalized communities, including larger women who may be misdiagnosed, it can fluctuate from time to time.
Anorexia nervosa is also usually diagnosed alongside other mood disorders. Like any other condition, it’s really important to take a holistic approach to treatment, so the care provider can get a global understanding of this individual’s challenges.
In my clinical practice, I have had great success with treating patients with anorexia because I was able to connect with the patient personally; let them know that I want to understand them and help them. My approach to treatment was based on providing a safe and supportive environment where I could help the patient work through their thoughts about food.
For many people with bulimia, food is a way of coping with distressing emotions and feelings. Many people report triggers or negative emotions occurring before binges. For some people, their eating disorder becomes a way to deal with difficult emotional issues such as low self-esteem or perfectionism. Counseling can be a great help for people who are struggling with their mental health. There are different types of counseling, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and interpersonal therapy. It is often best that the entire family attends these sessions, as these eating disorders typically do not stem from the thoughts and behaviors of the individual suffering from the eating disorder.
It may also be helpful to connect with support groups where individuals suffering from eating disorders can share experiences and recovery strategies. They can find support from other people experiencing similar situations or simply feel less alone through connecting with those who understand what it’s like being without hope.
Taking a detailed food history can be an important tool in identifying and understanding eating disorders. Food is such a powerful medium that we all use to express our feelings. I hope you take this article as advice when thinking about your own health — take note of how much sugar you’re consuming. Do any foods make you feel good? Do certain ones seem more satisfying than others? These kinds of questions could help identify if there were deeper issues going on underneath the surface, like mental wellness.
Tomi Mitchell is a family physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com