They say, “You are what you eat” and certainly from an emotional and behavioural perspective, this is true.
Maybe you’ve noticed how you enjoy and savour certain foods; they make you feel good, while others… not so great.
We’re constantly being reminded to eat more healthily, but the allure of the highly processed, salty, fatty and sugary alternatives that taste so yummy can be hard to resist.
Food choices are influenced by our personal preferences, culture and accessibility.
What we get from food is so much more than the food itself.
It was the publication of the findings of the SMILES trial in 2017 that made me rethink why food choices are so important because of the impact they make on our mood.
The SMILES trial was a small world-first study conducted by Prof Felice Jacka and her team at the Mood and Food Institute at Deakin University, which demonstrated how dietary intervention could be used as an adjunct intervention in treating moderate to severe depression.
That first step as it was called spawned a lot more research and the establishment of new medical specialities in Nutritional Psychiatry and Lifestyle Psychiatry.
As we continue to grow our knowledge and understanding of how lifestyle, and in this example, our nutritional choices impact our health and wellbeing, it’s clear that the future of healthcare will utilise Lifestyle Medicine, a multi-disciplinary, whole-system approach to lifestyle-related and chronic disease, starting with prevention.
Despite all our marvellous new medical advances, treatments and technologies our wellbeing is declining.
And despite all the workplace health and wellbeing programs being enthusiastically implemented and public health programs, we are sicker, sadder and more stressed than ever.
It’s time for a paradigm shift and broadening our perspective to how the individual facets of lifestyle can assist you to thrive.
Food impacts our mood, memories and social interactions in many ways.
A recent food and mood focus group study conducted by Bond and Southern Cross Universities with 50 participants found that our relationship with food can be broken down into three themes:
- Social context
- Social economics
Social context: familial and cultural influences of food and mood
As a multicultural society, Australians enjoy a rich and diverse food culture.
Growing up in the UK we ate meat and three veg. We had fish on Fridays and a roast on Sunday. Christmas was always turkey and Christmas pudding. On birthdays and high days, Mum would produce her tried and trusted “Coronation chicken” followed by summer pudding or “Viennetta” ice-cream.
After migrating to Australia, our diet changed to match the social norms. Meat pies with sauce, steak and chips, and barbeques galore.
Today we’ve followed the trend towards a plant-based diet with some fish and try to avoid high processed or junk foods. Though having pizza on a Friday night is always enjoyed.
That’s the thing about food. Personal preferences and trends mean we have the chance to change our diet to best suit our body.
I love cooking, and so does my husband. When we’re feeling inspired, we love trying out new recipes, in addition to preparing our favourite dishes and inviting friends and family around for a meal. It’s relaxing too, for the most part until you realise, you’re missing the one key ingredient for the evening’s culinary masterpiece.
What has your heritage led you to eat?
Social economics: time, finance and food security
Food rationing continued in the UK long after the end of the Second World War. Our parents frequently reminded us that for them, a pat of butter was a luxury, cakes were made with powdered egg and food had to stretch to feed growing bodies. While we never went hungry, we rarely had sweets, never ate between meals, and you always had to finish what was on your plate.
(Cold overcooked Brussels sprouts anyone?)
Australia is considered a land of plenty but is also a land of growing food insecurity as economic hardships bite hard. It’s estimated that 1.3 million Australian children don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and parents are choosing to go without to ensure their kids get fed.
Time constraints are also a big factor in busy lives. If you’re running late, keen to get home and you know you haven’t got anything lined up for dinner, the thought of going to the supermarket, choosing what to have, and then going home to cook a meal can feel too much.
Takeaway is often the easier option. It’s cheap, readily available and they’ll even deliver to your door (for a price) You know it’s not always the healthy option but getting food into hungry bellies is sometimes the more convenient choice.
Sure, you can be super organised, buy in bulk because it’s cheaper and cook up several meals to put in the deep freeze until needed but how does that play out, especially when you’re exhausted from working full-time, studying at night, being a parent to your kids and struggling to keep on top of everything?
Then there’s the guilt of feeling you’re not a good parent because your child’s lunch box is a vegemite sandwich and a packet of crisps or your contribution to your child’s parents’ morning tea is a packet of biscuits bought on the way to school, not a homemade cake loving made and iced the evening before.
Is time poverty or economic constraint impacting your relationship with food?
Food nostalgia: unlocking memories that impact mood.
A memorable meal is more than the food itself. It might be who you shared that meal with or the place where you ate it.
Like the Sicilian Airbnb we stayed at. It was a one-bedroom hut located in a vineyard on the top of a hill looking out over the plain below and the glittering sea in the distance. We sat on the veranda watching the sunset as we nibbled on the freshest and most delicious tomatoes we’d ever eaten with slices of creamy mozzarella and basil in a caprese salad. It was dreamily romantic, and neither of us will ever forget it.
Or the Greek village in the Dodecanese where we stumbled across a street festival where long tables covered with white tablecloths were laid out with mountains of roast lamb and bowls of olives. We were ushered into the kitchens to help with the cooking and invited to share the meal—pure magic.
Mum was great at preparing lots of meals, very quickly. Presentation wasn’t her thing, but the food always tasted good even on the occasions when there had been a culinary mishap in the kitchen.
She taught all of us to cook, and how to use a pressure cooker – that she always used for cooking the vegetables in. The sight of overcooked veggies always makes me think of her.
Do certain foods or meals invoke memories of happy times or the people you were with?
Food provides the essential ingredients we need for optimal health and wellbeing.
It also allows us to engage with our cultural heritage and connect to memories from the past and other people.
From here the question to be answered is how to relate this to assisting those struggling with poor mental health where isolation, depression or anxiety can be associated with a disinterest in food or loss of appetite.
I’d love to know, how has your relationship with food affected your mood?
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally accredited board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, trainer, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase.