This post was rough-drafted before drive-thru food pantries, empty grocery store shelves, and threats of massive food shortages. There’s a mountain of evidence that what you eat can make or break your mood–but suddenly eating clean 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 does extensive studies on food insecurity: “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 post-virus scenario predicts a rise to 54 million, or 1 in every 6 persons.
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 charged that eating well is expensive, and I’ll address that. “Mental health issues” due to the pandemic are reportedly on the rise. Food justice plus insights about food and mood are needed now more than ever.
The coronavirus is an opportunity to overhaul the unworkable. That’s why I’ll wrap up this up 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 a mad priestess with belief in a future we cannot see. But eating for health isn’t rocket science. It could be a bigger factor in saving us than anyone can yet imagine.
Don’t believe everything you think.
Too much mental chatter too easily fosters debris I call toxic thoughts—chronic and debilitating, unlike a flash of genius or creative brainstorm. I refer to those thoughts 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 for good.
Sometimes we can’t shut them up. Sometimes the cognitive-behavioral tricks of asking ourselves, “is the content of that thought REALLY true?” or snapping a rubber band against the wrist to stop the thought, works. Sometimes that’s too much effort when the voices are demons on a mission.
It’s not an accepted norm to connect dark moods to what the body imbibes, except in the case of substance abuse. I didn’t start out thinking about food when I fell for a number of therapies, from Carl Rogers and Fritz Perls in the Sixties, through feminist therapy, psychosynthesis and “parts parties,” Jung and transpersonal approaches . . . I learned a lot and love it all. But I’ve been watching something within myself for two decades, even though I still tend to run first in the direction that mind/soul are so lofty and complex the body couldn’t possibly have anything to do with my depression, anxiety, or inertia.
Time and time again I am proven wrong.
For me certain negative thought-trains attach to particular physical issues, I’ve learned through rueful hindsight. With awareness, you too might notice a match-up. The way it presents will vary among individuals, but will be consistent within the individual.
For example. Accidental ingestion of gluten or dairy and 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, feeling rejected. With dairy I weep, but gluten makes me surly.
Take sleep, an everyday thing. Too little sleep for a stretch, and to my mind I’m a fraud at large—can’t these 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. Like . . .
What did I eat lately? What is that smell coming from construction in the building and is that why I’m queasy? When’s the last time I took a walk? Been awhile since I did that special self-care thing (not junk food or other addictions)?
In my early days with nutritional strategies, I waxed ecstatic about what saved me from chronic physical and emotional pain. I shared my supplement choices, and still follow most of these to this day. I wrote about my saga to health in my memoir. 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- 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. 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 the demons known as toxic thoughts.
Human bodies are the same bodies we had as hunter-gatherers, before agriculture. 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 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.
A word about Grain Brain, as neurologist David Perlmutter calls it. He elaborates how eating grains causes dementia, ADHD, anxiety and more. Grains bring out the villain: inflammation. Commonly chowed-down grains also spike blood sugar fast—bread and white rice are notorious.
Luckily, kicking grains for me did the trick. Not only did my energy surge, migraines 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.
The phrase “food as medicine” is music to my ears. Two significant eras of food-change 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.
But there is a scary aspect to ditching the crappy 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 and try to derail my efforts? With coronavirus picking us off in droves anyway, why try?
We don’t lack for theories about why the obese can’t self-regulate, why bulimics choose to vomit and anorexics to starve. When I had a hypnotherapy practice, I worked with young women with food issues. The heart of their task was to connect with the Inner Child and find out what she really wanted and needed. Then we’d enlist the client’s adult-self in real time to help the Child discover ways to meet these 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 with me about food allergens/ intolerances. So much shame and fear of blame; to them, decorum dictates that what they eat remain a highly personal, private matter.
I’ve modified my Paleo diet over time to include the occasional lentils, white beans, and tofu. If going by the book, that’s too many carbs and I’m cheating. But I’m ambivalent about meat eating: too much meat and I feel bogged down, yet without it I’m weak and tired. Unfortunately the Paleo way throws us onto the horns of 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 we consume it in mass quantities, not the way we raise livestock for consumption. Corporate meatpackers strong-arming their workers back to the lines without providing coronavirus testing only highlights Mass Meat as central to feeding a nation and keeping the economy going. The obvious answer is to support small sustainable farms, but can they meet the ravenous demand?
To unpack the shame and blame that hovers around food choices, we might cease berating ourselves and look to the onslaught of propaganda by Big Food,Big Ag, Frankenfood or Fake Food. 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 limited to products that a moneyed minority chooses to stock there and call food. We forget also we are fed research on “mental illness” bankrolled by Bigtime Pharma, with its tentacles into Congress and certain media firms, its big laughter and belittling of the idea that the wrong foods can make one crazy.
We get caught in a web of anxious, emotional baggage around the simple and basic act of nourishment, and that is where the food-powers-that-be would prefer to have us: blaming our own lack of “will power.”
But there’s more: an opioid mechanism when it comes to staples like gluten and dairy. These foods are literally drugs. They contain fake endorphins–morphine-like peptides. After tearing 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!
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 wish we had the kind of addiction services for foods known to hit on opioid receptors as we do for painkillers.
I don’t believe that if truly healthy 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 why I was so dangerously depressed and anxious, I’m certain 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. It was a cardiologist whose bestseller about Wheat Belly reached the masses in 2011. Countless websites and bloggers are there for support; I like the moms or nonprofits, as opposed to doctors trying to sell products with their information.
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 in such record numbers anyway? Is it “just life?” “The way we are?” Are some criminals simply born that way, some heads of states gladly dictators from stored mean in their genes or because absolute power corrupts absolutely?
Or is there an easily correctable problem staring us in the face?
Barbara Reed Stitt was a parole officer who grasped how many juvenile offenders could be turned around once their diets were cleaned up, and 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 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 benefited 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. For a pointed, accessible and readable plea for how to reform the criminal justice system, I urge you to check out an argument backed by 78 studies, here.
In memory of George Floyd, brutally murdered by a police officer’s knee on his neck while three officers stood by: it all spirals back to social justice. 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 pandemic in the air. Because sugar and carbohydrates sabotage the immune system, increasing the body’s risk for disease. Because meat eaten without moderation drives hot-spots of infected persons back to work to keep those factory-knives chopping. What if a second wave of infections halts air travel, closes ports, and food corporations go under?
What to eat then? Alternate proteins to meat-splurging are good fats like nuts and seeds and avocados 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; not all are local fare everywhere.
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 of us have been waiting for this idyllic way of life with its appropriate-technology twist for some time. Many are already living it. Some of us have been lazy, too lulled by convenience, or cut off from community in these fearful times.
Come on you virus, make it happen! Awaken us to the link between the hand’s labor, love for the outdoors, and nourishment. Usher in serious shared solutions and snuff out stupidity. Will survival of the fittest mean that persons most curious, inventive, and willing to try new things will thrive? That social justice will replace partisan gun-slinging because there is no other way to carry on than by relying on one another?
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 . . . all because a bat shed some cells into the human horde, forcing a tailspin of dysfunction and division until we found our way.
We may look back on this madness that is 2020 so far and shake our heads, count some new blessings born of new priorities, and sigh with relief because those were the Bad Old Days.