This post was rough-drafted before Covid, with its drive-thru food pantries, empty grocery shelves, and threats of food shortages. There’s a mountain of evidence that what you eat can be agents of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders—but with pandemics and natural disasters abounding, eating healthy seems secondary to staying fed. Does that throw the importance of the discussion out the window? Or do I just go with it like we’ll be “back to normal” any day now?
Feeding America is a nonprofit group that does extensive studies on food insecurity, defined as “households that lack access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” Their models show food insecurity will burgeon on local levels. Pre-pandemic stats were already at 37 million persons, including 11 million children.
One after-virus scenario predicts a rise to 54 million, or 1 in every 6 persons. Will we end up like the workhouse boys in the Broadway musical Oliver! dreaming of “food, glorious food” as they gather for their daily gruel?
The same folks hit hardest by food insecurity are most devastated by coronavirus—seniors, people with chronic illnesses, people of color. The connection is poverty, equaling density of population plus poor healthcare. It’s been said that on top of that, eating for nutrition is expensive.
Food justice plus insights about how we become what we eat—for better or worse—are needed more than ever.
Covid is an opportunity to overhaul patterns that hurt everybody. I’ll finish this post with a vision for post-pandemic food security that also keeps us sane—a vision, not a scientific assessment or administrative policy. I’m only one person with a mind wild enough to believe in a future I can’t see. But eating for mental health isn’t that complicated. It could be a bigger factor in saving us than we know.
Don’t believe everything you think.
The mental chatter in our heads is prone to produce ANTS, Automatic Negative Thoughts. I almost hate to call them thoughts because they can be chronic and debilitating. To me, the better part of Thought is rational, the pinnacle a flash of genius or creative brainstorm.
But ANTs refer to the pointed, inner comments that fuel fear or hopelessness, the ones that call you a failure and a waste of anyone’s time, that urge you to hide yourself away from sight.
It’s not common practice to connect dark moods to what the body takes in—except in the case of substance abuse, where we can watch people go dark or loopy from drinking and drugging in real time. But food is such a battleground of emotional fervor for good (“comfort”) or ill (“weight watching”) and that’s as far as it seems to go.
I never considered basic experiences such as food/sleep/outdoors time affecting my depression and anxious tailspins way back when I fell for a number of therapies—from humanists Carl Rogers and Fritz Perls in the Sixties, through feminist therapy, psychosynthesis and “parts parties,” Jung and transpersonal approaches . . . heady stuff and I still love it. It helped me and after I became a therapist I drew widely on these ideas and saw the benefits in others.
But I’ve been watching something within myself for over two decades now, even though I still tend to run first in the direction that some psychological intrigue, a mess-up that is unique to my messed-up psyche, is main cause of my emotional storms.
Time and time again I am proven wrong about that. Or more to the point, if I can nab the body-based culprit, I can more easily smash the ANTs.
For me, certain negative thought-trains attach to particular physical factors. With awareness, you too might notice a match-up. It varies between individuals for sure, but will be consistent within an individual.
For example: with accidental ingestion of gluten or dairy I hear mean self-talk with the knock of migraine on the right side of my face. If the headache goes full-blown, thoughts have a sinister tone: paranoid, focusing on other people’s shortcomings, me feeling rejected. With dairy I weep, but gluten makes me surly. Food, dangerous food.
Take sleep, another everyday thing. Too little sleep for a stretch, and to my mind I’m a fraud at large—can’t people see through me? Surely, they can tell I’m seriously deranged and about to scream uncontrollably any minute now!
When I haven’t spent enough time in Nature, it’s all about avarice. I want more. More attention, more money, more movies, books, more time on Facebook. Jittery, prone to feelings of emptiness, I’m a rat running the walls of my cage, blocked at every swerve.
It’s so hard to stand back from these states, to stop ruminating about other people or your own “faults,” to check in with a question or two:
What did I eat lately? What’s that smell from construction in the building that’s turning my stomach? When’s the last time I took a walk? Been awhile since I did that special self-care thing? Am I just freaking tired?
FOOD AND MOOD RE-DO
In my early days with nutritional strategies, I waxed ecstatic about what saved me from chronic physical and emotional pain. I wrote about mental illness in my memoir, Lunacy Lost. But there’s been a new development.
After a decade of newfound energy, clarity, and optimism–the migraines, fatigue and deep depression returned. Weird! I was scrupulously following my diet. More gluten-free and dairy-free items were on the market. I lived in the country and was outdoors all the time. True, relationships at home weren’t the best, so I blamed my malaise on that. I had a new job and didn’t like getting up early. Motherhood was hard, and I felt like a failure on the career front. There were plenty of places to point a finger.
Then I heard about the Paleo diet. Oh, how the fads come and go. Today Keto is all the rage but it’s similar to Paleo: keep it low carb. Loading carbohydrates results in visceral fat, the killer kind; it also turns to sugar in the brain and that leads to those toxic thoughts.
Human bodies are the same bodies we had as hunter-gatherers, before agriculture was invented by women sitting around with the babies while the men were on the hunt. The cultivation of grains, beans, and certain starches, say the Paleo-diet folk, didn’t do us any favors because our digestion can’t handle it.
Which leads to more than tummy-aches. Witness the digestive disorders that pair with “mental” disorders. Too many studies to list; look on PubMed Central, home to this fantastic article: Gut thinking: the gut microbiome and mental health beyond the head.
Back in the cave-wo/man days we ate meat and lots of fresh foods. Nuts and seeds. Plentiful greens and roots. Immune enhancing berries plus fruits with skin for fiber. Paleolithic peeps ate plums, pears, dates, figs, grapes, olives, and oranges. They ate a lot of things we don’t, such as ferns and cattails!
No grains though. No refined sugar either, no surprise.
Grains are high in phytates or phytic acid, an antinutrient because it binds to minerals we need—iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc—then our bodies can’t use them. Mineral deficiency equals poor immunity, bad skin, brittle bones, PMS, fatigue. Cows can break down phytates, we can’t.
Ditto harm from lectins in grains, another antinutrient. They’re a great defense to have if you’re a plant. In order for the plant to survive, lectins irritate our digestive system so we don’t digest their seeds (we poop them out). For us lectins can mean diarrhea, bloating, reflux, nausea or vomiting.
Finally, despite all the celebration of “whole grains,” their nutrients just aren’t that bioavailable compared to meat, seafood, fruits and veggies.
Luckily, kicking grains for me did the trick. Not only did my energy surge, but migraines also stopped, depression skedaddled and I lost seventeen pounds.
Prior to that I’d been pretty smug about my gluten/dairy-free choices. But in truth they were processed, refined foods. Cookies, chips, pasta galore, and grains: primarily rice. So much rice, and white-rice flour as if that was any better than the Pillsbury staple, although gluten-free.
A word about Grain Brain, as neurologist David Perlmutter coined it. He elaborates how eating grains causes dementia, ADHD, anxiety and more. Grains encourage a key villain in dis-ease: inflammation. Commonly chowed-down grains also spike blood sugar fast—bread and white rice are notorious.
THIS ISN’T EASY AT FIRST
The phrase “food as medicine” is music to my ears. Two significant eras of food changes rescued me from depression, chronic fatigue, migraines, plaguing muscle cramps, and such sore joints it hurt to walk. It was so huge in my life that I always ponder: what holds people back, suffering but too dispirited to let go of their processed-carb comfort foods?
I recall a local healer telling me that “some people just don’t want to feel better!” I knew there had to be a better why.
True, there is a scary aspect to ditching habits. Who will support me? What if I change too much? Will there be new expectations: be stronger, work harder, never fail? What about those people who won’t like the new me, try to derail my efforts? With long Covid a threat anyway, why try?
We don’t lack for theories about why the obese can’t self-regulate, why bulimics choose to vomit and anorexics starve. When I had a hypnotherapy practice, I worked with young women with food issues. The heart of their task was to connect with their Inner Child and find out what she really wanted and needed. Then we’d enlist the client’s adult-self to help the Child discover ways to meet those root needs.
Food can be an addiction but outside of weight-loss groups we’re as reluctant to talk about it as the Victorian Age was to discuss sex. More than one well-educated friend has refused to converse about food allergens/ intolerances with me. So much shame and fear of blame; to them, decorum dictates that eating remain a highly personal, private matter. Food, lovely/hateful food!
I’ve modified my Paleo diet over time to include the occasional lentils, white beans, and tofu. And some grains! Buckwheat isn’t really a grain, it’s related to rhubarb, and ever so easy going on the digestion. Millet, if soaked awhile before cooked will reduce the phytic acid and is so fluffy good it rivals rice—it’s lectin free, and the one grain that doesn’t spike blood sugar!
If going by the book, that’s too many carbs to be a Paleo Star and I’m cheating. The reassurance that each body is different, and that after due diligence to heal we can tolerate more food choices, rings true in my case.
Do you ever, after eating a lot of meat, feel bogged down? Yet without it you’re weak and tired? Unfortunately, the Paleo way with its emphasis on meat poses a dilemma regarding the consumption of the flesh of animals.
This planet can’t support its population eating meat at every meal, not the way affluent countries consume it in mass quantities, not the way we raise livestock. Mass Meat is a major contributor to climate change. Cows pump out methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and forests are sacrificed for grazing lands. A great idea is to support small sustainable farms, but can they meet the ravenous demand?
To unpack the shame and blame that hover around food, we might cease berating ourselves and look to the onslaught of propaganda by Big Food/Big Ag. Advertising, packaging, FDA-protected secrets to increase “crave-ability” and of course high trans-fats, high sugar, high salt are their game.
Here is the heart of the argument about why “eating better” appears more expensive: concerted corporate ability to provide junk at low cost keeps us captive, while their government-buddies assist in the con. The bombardment of information from Experts with vested interests is so overwhelming it dismantles the will.
Somehow standing in the grocery line we forget we’re captives to products that conniving conglomerates choose to stock there and call food. We forget also we are fed research about what’s “good for you and bad for you” that is bankrolled by Bigtime Pharma, with its tentacles latched into Congress and certain media firms.
Caught in a web of anxious, emotional baggage around the simple and basic act of nourishment—that is where the Food-Powers-That-Be would prefer to have us: blaming our own lack of “will power.”
But there’s even more to this: an opioid mechanism when it comes to staples like gluten and dairy. They contain fake endorphins–morphine-like peptides. After tearing up the gut lining these peptides travel through the holes (leaky gut) to the brain. It’s what makes that crusty bread or smooshy ice cream such a high. The problem is when the feel-good wears off. Withdrawal! Give me more!
I wish we had the kind of addiction services for foods known to hit on opioid receptors as we do for painkillers.
Why “got milk?” when no other species drinks milk of another species on the planet, when it’s known to worsen asthma, migraines, allergies, digestion, sinus infections, and anemia (iron deficiency)? Why do we think that 50 years of hybridizing the hell out of wheat would have no effect on us? I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that if truly healthy food choices were the only choices, people would rather starve.
The reason I’m fascinated by the subject of food and behavior boils down to what’s at stake: the children. If I hadn’t raised a daughter with autism whose needs alerted me to the foods stoking my dangerous depression and default anxiety, I’m convinced I’d be fully disabled by now or dead from suicide. And it all started when I was a teenager, wild and oppositional—eating big hunks of cheese and downing quarts of milk, mad for bread, bread, bread plus pasta by the plateful.
On the edge of despair in midlife I found warriors like early anti-dairy pioneer Frank Oski, (Don’t Drink Your Milk!), a pediatrician and medical specialist in children’s cancer at John Hopkins Children Center. Another readable eye-opener is cardiologist William Davis’s bestseller about gluten, Wheat Belly, which reached the masses in 2011.
But it helps to acknowledge how personal this is: food can be a friend, a sensual partner, a sanctuary in a world that’s artificial, over-stimulating, and hostile. Where loneliness and mistrust prevail and community is a lost art.
Trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score explains how some persons feel safer when they literally carry more weight into the world. Many have escaped bullying by becoming obese. Women report feeling insulated by extra pounds from unwanted male attention.
But why do adults traumatize one another, and children, to such lengths that make people take such risks for protection? Is it “just life?” “The way we are?” Are some criminals simply born that way, some heads of states turn dictators from stored mean in their genes or because absolute power corrupts absolutely?
Barbara Reed Stitt was a parole officer who grasped how juvenile offenders could be turned around once their diets were cleaned up. She convinced quite a few judges to support her view. Her classic Food & Behavior: A Natural Connection makes a staunch case for “the biochemistry of crime” as really hypoglycemia, nutrient deficiency, allergic reactions, and toxic metals.
A study of 3,000 incarcerated young offenders whose junk-food snacks were replaced by nutritious ones showed notable decreases in anti-social (fighting, disruption type) behavior and suicide attempts. Conclusion: “Because the implementation of sound nutrition was inexpensive and easy to implement, and because it benefitted personal health, it should be implemented whenever possible.”
Another study in the UK, replicated by the Dutch Ministry of Justice, gave nutritional supplements to 231 juvenile offenders and saw a 37% decrease in violent incidents, and an overall 48% difference between those getting them and those on placebo.
Prison populations were the subject of the above-mentioned studies. Who makes up the largest percentage of prisoners? Poverty-trapped persons of color. Where are the environmental hazard-sites and food deserts most often located? In their communities.
Everything is connected. Even the virus that won’t go away. Sugar and carbohydrates sabotage the immune system, increasing the body’s risk for disease.
Alternate proteins to meat-splurging are good fats from the Paleo path, like nuts and seeds and avocados and olives and eggs. As the Earth recovers from our polluting ways, plentiful fish without toxins will be there for us again. If dark chocolate makes it into this new time, we’ll have a bit of delight that ups our immune systems too. These are a few of my favorite things; most don’t cost an arm and a leg, either.
We may be forced to get cozy and grow our food together, learn to forage for what’s wild and nutrient-dense and share the bounty as in the children’s story, Stone Soup. Am I dreaming?
Some have been waiting for this idyllic way of life with its appropriate-technology twist for some time. Some are already living it. Some of us have been lazy, too lulled by convenience, or cut off from community in these fearful times.
Necessity might drive a cure for loneliness. Loneliness is a huge factor in “mental illness” and early death.
An honest response to Earth’s tough times could make it happen. We could awaken to the link between human labor, love for nature, and the body’s nourishment. Usher in savvy, shared solutions of the small-scale variety.
Could survival of the fittest mean that the persons who are the most curious, inventive, and willing to try new things will thrive? Then justice will replace partisan gun-slinging because there is no other way to hang in here on planet Earth than by relying on each other.
Allow me my visions where we man-up, woman-up, nonbinary-up to reclaim the world, and in the process find that our thoughts wash clean of violent intent, bodies heal their chronic woes, children can learn again and elders be useful.
What’s wrong with shedding ANTs to keep rational thought and fertile imagination trained on what we know human ingenuity/human spirit can do? We might end up looking back on what is the current dicey era and shake our heads, sighing with relief because those were the Bad Old Days.