Food and Mental Health: what does it mean for us?

Humans have been eating food and living lives as best we can for millennia. Why does it seem important to be talking about food and mental health at this moment in the twenty-first century?

People have very different experiences, depending on where they are in the world and how much of the world’s resources they have access to. My work is with people living in the UK so this is the kind of population that is of most concern for me although, having said that, we live in an interconnected world so what happens to some of us does have an effect on the rest of us.

Here, we have had a National Health Service for more than seventy years. Diseases like polio, measles and diphtheria that were threats to life in the early twentieth century have been eradicated or are relatively easily treatable. We have become physically fitter generally, although our affluence has brought on increase to ‘lifestyle’ diseases like Type 2 diabetes. Scientists are identifying links between diet and mental health too. Depression, anxiety, autism, dementia and schizophrenia have all been associated with deficiencies in essential nutrients.

As we have been less concerned with disease and deprivation, automation and the movement towards a more knowledge-based economy have resulted in a smaller amount of hard physical work, but higher levels of stress. Stress adds to the pressure placed on our bodies and minds in today’s society.

People have become more willing to talk about their mental health, with friends and family, but also in public. Celebrities are open about their emotional states and ‘lifestyle’ advice is available from many sources.

Humans are whole beings, so what happens to us at one aspect of our selves also has an impact on others. Physical health practitioners may find themselves concerned also about mental health and practitioners who work in the field of mental health may feel the need to pay attention to their clients’ physical bodies, including their food choices.

Our relationships with food affect us in all aspects of our being: physical, emotional, psychological and even spiritual, in that many religions have rituals involving food. As health practitioners, we may feel that we need to widen our knowledge and awareness around this profound connection.