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Mood, nutrition and the power of the mind

By Elizabeth (ADAVIC Volunteer)

2014 - October 22nd

We’re talking about food and how we feel. How fundamental is that? It’s one of our first experiences in life, and yet we are still learning how it works. It seems the capabilities of the mind can be more powerful than those of the body. Recent research is discovering that nutrition and mood affect one another more than we realised with constant interactions in all directions of biological, sociological and psychological factors. Choice largely determines what we eat and how we eat it, but how do we make the right choices?
Sometimes we just know. There are times when our body craves exactly what it needs, and instantly it can feel good to consume something nutritional. How good does it feel to drink a glass of water when you’re thirsty? Our impulses when it comes to food can be surprisingly attuned to our nutritional needs. I craved steak when I was pregnant and following a high carbohydrate diet that was fashionable at the time. Then a test showed that I was temporarily anaemic. The iron in that steak I had been craving was exactly what my body needed. Sometimes our inability to control our impulses when we can’t stick to a diet can really be a healthy response. Listening to your body is important when choosing food.
Paying attention to mood can help us to identify good nutritional choices, but can we rely on our impressions? Not always. To stay healthy we must also look at the bigger picture. A naturopath put me on a dangerous diet when I was in my twenties. Unfortunately I managed to stick to that diet for two weeks. Achieving a dieting goal involving self-control is empowering, which made me feel very good for a while, but the diet was not right for me, I lost too much weight too quickly. I was delighted to get a tiny waist, but friends and family were saying I looked too thin. I was lucky to get immediate help from a mental health professional. It was effective, but it was not easy to get back to normal eating patterns. 
Even a good diet that is being followed most of the time can ruin our wellbeing if it becomes an obsession. We may berate ourselves and get anxious or feel worthless over breaking the diet (let alone not being able to start it in the first place). Self-deception can then result in more poor nutritional choices.
Diets are tricky. We can make up our mind that we want to follow one, then deceive ourselves in moments of weakness. If I’m on a diet I’m prone to overeat when I’m stressed or upset, because it’s then that I think things like, “I’ll just have a bit”, and, “Now that I’ve had some it doesn’t matter if I have some more”. Habitual behaviour is the hardest to change – unless we take control we might put off getting back to sensible eating until tomorrow… indefinitely.
A healthy eating plan that has general guidelines to follow over time is much kinder than a diet. Diets often involve going against cultural norms, which can set off a whole series of faulty rationalisations. Everyone else seems to be eating the things we’re not allowed to, so it feels very unfair. When we are bombarded with ads for sugary fatty food of course we are brainwashed into feeling like eating them. When we are hungry and all around us there is easily available food that we’ve been told we’re not allowed to eat, it’s like the forbidden fruit – the act of denying yourself makes it enticing.
There are times when we can feel obliged to eat or drink to be polite, but the pressure to conform need not result in frequent bad nutritional choices. Just because other people make particular lifestyle choices does not mean they are the right ones for us. Mindlessly following the crowd is risky.
Often our will power is influenced by thinking other people are judging our performance.  There are times when this can strengthen our resolve to do the right thing, but there are other times when we get caught in the trap of blaming others for our lack of self-control. Perhaps we eat the very thing we’re trying not to eat just to show someone they can’t control us. Or perhaps we rebel by refusing the food that they offer.
Thoughts like these are very common and can be overcome, I’ve found, using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).We are all capable of this type of thinking and can laugh at our own foolishness if it is not taken to extremes. But let’s take a reality check. Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder are classified as mental illnesses. It is common for sufferers to deny they have an eating disorder. Admitting to yourself that you need help is a brave and difficult step to take. For more information and how to get help, see the Eating Disorders Victoria website (
Recent research has focused on the emotional drivers of eating disorders, and found that sufferers are often     trying to manage their emotions by eating or not eating. Depression is experienced by approximately 45% to 86% of individuals with an eating disorder. Mood swings are typical of Binge Eating Disorder. This research has also found eating disorders can be attributed to thought suppression and stress. Anxiety Disorder is experienced by approximately 64% of individuals with an eating disorder. It is common for sufferers to hold specific expectancies about the function of eating –  their ideas about what effect food will have on them is different from societies.
It’s easy to lose our way when we are alone, because if we take a wrong turn there is nobody there to point us back in the right direction. A healthy mind is open to the opinions of others about distorted body image, and is able to adjust. A healthy mind questions the unrealistic fantasies about what we should look like from photos   that have been touched up for advertising. A healthy mind does not cave to peer pressure, but shares views with people to make intelligent choices.
All of us need to harness the power of the mind to make informed decisions about nutrition with the help of others. Who do we believe when there is so much contradicting advice? On the one hand there is something to be said for tradition because it is built up over time, and developed over generations – not only do we adapt to those diets, but they can be healthy options because they were chosen by those who survived natural selection. On the other hand science has improved public health immeasurably. Just because a belief is old or new doesn’t make it reliable. Experts from different disciplines strongly argue opposing views on nutrition. Scientists admit they are only just beginning to understand the influences of different nutrients on our biological systems. Over time the evidence from scientific research can become outdated as new findings disprove old ones. Magazines, self-help books and the internet have lots to say, and there are many sources of misinformation because promoting diets is big business. It requires critical literacy skills to sift through the “facts”. But if we follow the current consensus on nutrition, we can form a balanced view about what to eat and how to eat it. Then we can just enjoy our food in the knowledge we are informed.
Nutrition does matter, it’s a basic survival need, but as strange as this seems we get a “placebo effect” if we believe we are eating the right foods. It is not just a trick of the mind. The belief can genuinely help to heal the body because you relax when you think something is good for you. This is because our body functions more effectively when the relaxation response is dominant. Relaxation releases healing hormones and neurotransmitters into your bloodstream. Nitric oxide, for example, stops pain. Chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins are powerful promoters of health.
Conversely we can feel worse after learning that what we have eaten is bad for us. This "nocebo effect" can be equally powerful. Have you ever made yourself consume something you didn’t like because you thought it was nutritious… only to discover it was not? When that happened to me I felt sick but not until the moment of making the discovery. We can be overwhelmed by a vomiting response. Even if something else caused the problem, like motion sickness, a horrible experience or the body being stressed by a medical condition, our brains can associate whatever we just ate with a need to vomit from that time on. Just the smell of that food can set us off. It is possible to condition the body to not have this response with aversion therapy.
We can have other strong physical reactions to food we don’t like. It may pass through the intestines too quickly for any nutrients to be digested. We may be put off because we believe that food is bad for our health, cruel to animals or not good to eat for any number of economic, environmental, cultural, ethical or aesthetic reasons.
Strong emotions can also play havoc with our digestive systems. A broken heart can make your stomach hurt, and you can lose your appetite. Stress, negative thoughts, negative emotions, and psychological problems all affect the way our gut feels, the sensations it experiences, its ability to move and use energy, and its secretions.  Resulting digestive disorders include food allergies, bloating, indigestion, heartburn, reflux and other irritable bowel problems. Such negative effects on our wellbeing can spiral downwards. Of course, an upset digestive system makes us feel even worse. Frustration, worry and sadness lower our immune system so we are more likely to get further health complications. Our body fights illness with inflammation, which can make us feel really bad.  Chronic inflammation can cause depression and anxiety. Stress floods the bloodstream with adrenaline, which causes an increase in sugar metabolism. Chronic stress is associated with many health issues, including diabetes. When we're chronically stressed or pessimistic our body's natural self-repair systems can't work properly.
Downward spirals in wellbeing can be intercepted at any stage. A biopsychosocial assessment may be required with a multidisciplinary approach working with a health care team (perhaps your GP, specialist doctors, dietician, fitness trainer, life coach, social worker, counsellor, psychologist…).  Usually people intercept a downward spiral at an early stage and work out their needs for themselves or with the help of family and friends. Wellbeing is a question of balance, moderation and harmony.
Sticking to a diet can be socially isolating, which adds further negative repercussions to our wellbeing. So sharing food to connect with others is good for most of us. “Breaking bread together” has profound, sometimes even religious meanings. It can be healing for family and friends to eat together after a funeral. Food has cultural, ethical, and aesthetic dimensions, so celebrating with cake or even a feast sometimes can be important.
The enjoyment you can get from eating an occasional treat may even be beneficial to your health. By raising body smart awareness we can tell the difference between a treat and an over indulgence. A recent study of binge eating asked people to rate their mood over a period of time. Although they said they were using food when they felt bad to make themselves feel better, most recorded that only reduced binge eating gave them less bad feelings and more good feelings. They felt better when they didn’t overeat.
Our thoughts, emotions, and mental health can literally harm or heal us, so if eating habits result in guilt or too much rigid self-discipline perhaps we can focus on other things – exercise, pets and music can be just as comforting as food. My own favourite is spending time in the company of caring people. Talk therapies have led   to long-term resolutions of some of my own issues, which is far better than just temporarily feeling good.

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