Food & Mood: Cooking and Eating for Mental Health

As a licensed therapist and a former chef, I’m often asked, “What made you decide on those two careers? They seem so different!" While food and therapy appear different at first, they’re actually quite interconnected. And understanding why will change how you look at your next meal and every meal thereafter. 

Think about the healing power of your grandma’s bowl of chicken soup. Or the satisfaction you feel after hosting a great BBQ or dinner with friends. As it turns out, food and emotion are deeply linked. Because our bodies and brains are hard-wired to communicate with each other, food can directly impact how we feel.

What nutritionists and scientists are now starting to understand is the power of food choices and what impact the cooking process itself can have on mental wellness. It’s not only what you eat that matters, but how you eat as well.

In fact, studies show accessing and preparing healthy foods can actually reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even chronic pain.  

Based on years of teaching and cooking, I've uncovered 3 simple principles that will dramatically improve the relationship between food and your mental health. 

  1. Choose foods you enjoy that nourish your mind and mood.
  2. Take part in the physical act of preparing food, which we’re now learning has mental health benefits of its own, and
  3. Cook and eat with other people whenever possible.

While these seem simple, knowing where to start can be daunting. And when we’re feeling anxious or stressed, these practices can be some of the first things to go. I've pulled together 5 tangible tips and how to implement these principles in your daily life to help you get the benefits of mindful cooking and eating for mental health.


1. CHOOSE WHOLE OVER PROCESSED
Whenever possible, choose whole foods over processed. Whole foods are generally more nutrient dense. That means your system gets the benefit of higher levels of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, fiber and water (think whole orange instead of juice/smoothie or whole almonds/walnuts vs. granola bar). If you're lacking sufficient amounts of essential vitamins and nutrients, you'll feel more fatigued, greater brain fog, and possibly even symptoms of depression. 

Benefit to your mental health: improved mood and brain function. 

 
2. GO FOR PROTEIN & FAT
Our brains are made up primarily of fat, and they require protein to function as well. Neurotransmitters (the chemicals that tell our brains what to do) need high quality sources of protein to work optimally. While we don’t need to overdo it with fat and protein, don’t avoid them either.

Good sources of protein are tofu, nuts, quinoa, fish and shellfish, grass fed or pastured meats, organic chicken and eggs. For healthy fats go for avocados, nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, and whole milk dairy. 

Benefit to your mental health: improved focus and mental clarity. Tip: meals earlier in the day that include fat and protein can be particularly beneficial to people with ADHD, helping to maintain focus and mental clarity throughout the day.

 
3. AVOID SUGAR SPIKES TO STAY OFF THE EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER
Eat when you’re hungry (even if it’s not convenient), try not to skip meals, and learn to snack strategically. Our brains prefer that we maintain a steady blood sugar level. When we dip and spike our blood sugars throughout the day, we also dip and spike our mood. It’s kind of like being on a rollercoaster. A sugary snack initially raises dopamine levels and elevates blood sugar (which our tired, nutrient-deprived, hungry brain was asking for). We feel better initially, but without the balance of fiber and protein, we usually plummet within about an hour. The brain gets cranky again and asks for carbohydrates, and the cycle continues. 

Eating snacks that balance proteins, fats, and carbs/sugars (like fruit & nuts or nut butters, cheese and crackers, a mini-sandwich, hummus and veggies) helps keep your blood sugar stable. And the fat in the nuts and the fiber in fruit slow fructose absorption, which helps to stabilize spikes as well. 

Benefit to your mental health: calmer mood that avoids the "emotional roller coaster," particularly important if you are prone to anxiety or depression.

 
4. TAKE YOUR TIME
There's something primal and satisfying about the experience of eating, so take your time to avoid missing out on those benefits. If you have access to a garden, spend time in the green space, and harvest food if you can. Visit a local farmer’s market for fresh, seasonal ingredients and notice how you feel when you’re around abundant fruits and vegetables. When choosing veggies go for a rainbow of colors, then you’ll also be sure you’re getting all of the body balancing vitamins and phyto-chemicals.

In addition, the process of preparing a meal can be incredibly rewarding in and of itself. For some of us who prefer following recipes, there can be a real sense of accomplishment. For others who like to go with the creative flow, the cooking process can be incredibly exciting. Either way, cooking can help lift spirits and improve mood even before the food we make ever reaches our lips. 

Benefit to your mental health: sense of relaxation and mindfulness, improved mood. Tip: adding the social component of cooking with others enhances feelings of interconnectedness, which can also help reduce symptoms of loneliness and depression.


5. EAT WITH ALL YOUR SENSES
When we're not feeling 100%, we sometimes lose our appetites and skip eating altogether. In doing so, we miss out on a key opportunity to improve our mood because the experience of cooking and eating itself can be energizing to our senses and our mind. 

First, try to approach cooking as a mindful process, as opposed to an annoying means to an end. Next time you cook, notice the textures of the greens in your hand, listen to the sizzle of the pan, smell the aroma wafting from the oven, and taste! Use your hands to chop, dice, tear, and mold. Fully immerse yourself in the cooking process, and you may find the entire experience to be more mindful. These embodied tasks can help you become more grounded and provide relief from pain and the effects of trauma.

Before you dine, remember we start eating with our eyes, so also pay attention to presentation. When we sit in front of a meal that's been crafted thoughtfully, there's an innate sense of anticipation and pleasure. And yummy smells can activate receptors in our brains that help re-vitalize our mood and appetite. Think about the dining experience as more than just about eating, and you may find you get more from the experience than you expect. 

Benefit to your mental health: improved mood and sense of groundedness to combat depression, relieve pain, and heal trauma. 

WHERE TO START
Changing our complex relationship with food is hard, so I suggest introducing small changes and see how you feel. And remember: eating for mental health is not just about “eating healthy.” It’s about learning to listen to your body, notice your hunger, and pay attention to your cravings. It’s about eating something because it tastes amazing and makes you feel good, never just because someone told you it was “healthy.” Your body has a lot of innate wisdom, when you pay attention. 

I encourage my clients to explore their relationship to food and shift their thinking about mood to include cooking and eating as a foundational piece of their mental health care. Preparing and eating tasty, nutrient-dense food creates a unique mindfulness opportunity that promotes grounding, embodiment and connection. These actions also positively affect brain function, mood, and mental clarity through better nutrition.

For gorgeous, flavor-filled recipes as well as detailed information on the nutritional connection between food and mental health, I highly recommend Rebecca Katz’s The Healthy Mind Cookbook.

If access to fresh foods is a barrier for geographic and/or financial reasons, there are lots of programs in the Bay Area that can help get you connected (contact me for more information).

These tips are based on years of experience I’ve had with my cooking and therapy clients. But don’t just take my word for it. I encourage you to dive right in and see how your body feels. Head the farmer’s market this weekend or try a new dish tonight. You might even (re)discover a long lost love of cooking and even a renewed sense of calm.

REFERENCES
Bair, M. J., Matthias, M.S., Nyland, K.A., Huffman, M.A., Stubbs, D.L., Kroenke, K. and Damush, T.M. (2009). Barriers and facilitators to chronic pain self-management: a qualitative study of primary care patients with comorbid musculoskeletal pain and depression. Pain Medicine, 10: 1280-1290.

Fosha, D. (2003). Dyadic regulation and experiential work with emotion and relatedness in trauma and disordered attachment. Healing trauma: attachment, trauma, the brain and the mind. Vol 0 (221-281). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Ogden, P. (2015). Sensorimotor psychotherapy: interventions for trauma and attachment.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Taylor AG, Goehler LE, Galper DI, Innes KE, Bourguignon C. (2010). Top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in mind-body medicine: development of an integrative framework for psychophysiological research. Explore (NY). 2010 Jan-Feb;6(1):29-41. doi: 10.1016/j.explore.2009.10.004.

Utter J., Denny S., Lucassen M., and Dyson B. (2016). Adolescent cooking abilities and behaviors: associations with nutrition and emotional well-being. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2016 Jan; 48(1): 35-41.e1. doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2015.08.016. Epub 2015 Sep 26.

Tracy McGillis, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) and a former culinary-trained chef and nutrition educator. With a background in mind-body medicine, she works with clients to move toward a life of intention and authenticity, addressing issues like life transitions, anxiety/panic, depression, and ADHD. She helped to develop the AIMS Project, an integrated, community-based, food-focused mental health program based in the Tenderloin in San Francisco.