Author: Lisa B
Trigger warning: this post talks about food, diets, weight, and exercise. If you have a history of disordered eating please take care when reading this post, and do not make any significant dietary changes without consulting a professional or someone you trust first. If you find yourself fixating on food or exercise and you feel it is impacting your wellbeing or life in general, please speak to your doctor for professional advice.
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We’ve all rolled our eyes at the people on social media who insist one of several hundred different diets will miraculously “cure” mental illness – from anxiety to PTSD to schizophrenia it seems that nothing is exempt from people trying to peddle their pseudoscience online. It’s harmful and frustrating to repeatedly see this kind of misinformation spread, especially when so much stigma already exists around mental illness and psychiatric medication.
That said, what we eat has long thought to be intrinsically linked to not just our physical health but also our mental wellbeing. Certainly in my own experience, I’ve noticed a huge difference in my mental health (although alas, no sudden disappearance of my long-standing mental illness has yet to manifest) since becoming vegetarian and going to the gym.
Let’s break this down, because I’m not for a second trying to claim that becoming vegetarian will suddenly transform your life or mental health, but for me, it’s made a huge difference. We already know that vitamin deficiencies can have massive impacts on our mental health; funnily enough, my biggest problem with this was when I ate meat. I didn’t care about what I was putting into my body – when my mental health was so poor that I could barely make it through the day, eating was secondary and when I did eat, it was junk food with almost no nutritional value. I was iron deficient and anaemic, and it made me feel so tired, so run-down and so devoid of energy on top of all the symptoms my mental illnesses were piling on. It’s well known that B12 deficiencies can sometimes present as psychiatric symptoms like dementia and psychosis due to its role crucial role in many bodily processes, including cell generation.
When I got older, I put on a lot of weight at the end of university because everything took a back seat to studying. The days leading up to exams were so full of studying that I rarely took breaks, even to cook myself food, instead opting for takeaway after takeaway. Although weight does not define anyone’s worth, for me it is always an indication of how well I’m looking after myself, and in the past I never prioritised my physical health. Even when I graduated and studying was no longer a concern, my days were filled with eating large amounts of junk food and being glued to Netflix as soon as I got home from work. I barely ate vegetables, the meat I ate wasn’t always the best quality and I never exercised, preferring to joke that getting the remote to change the channel on the TV was as close to a sit up as I was going to get.
In addition to this, my love of animals led to intense denial and guilt at the realities of the meat, dairy, and seafood industry. It seems impossible nowadays to escape the warnings about climate change, animal cruelty and the general health concerns regarding processed meat and its link to heart disease and cancer, and these worries can stack up and chip away at us. When I started making dietary changes, a weight I didn’t know I had been carrying started to lessen. Meat and dairy farming is harmful to the animals involved and it’s also one of the single biggest contributors to climate change globally; not only was my lifestyle detrimental to myself, I was harming the world around me and it didn’t make for positive mentality or wellbeing.
I didn’t stop eating meat because of health concerns, because in truth I never expected it to have such a significant impact, but since ditching meat in favour of more plant-based foods (I’m somewhere between vegetarian and vegan right now) I’ve taken a front-seat in my own nutrition, rather than eating passively for the sake of it. I’m still a fan of Netflix marathons and takeaways, but when I’m making my own meals I really think about what’s going into them and what nutritional value they’re going to have. I cook with more pulses, vegetables, and beans than I ever did before and since going to the gym I feel physically (and mentally) stronger. When I eat food that’s full of vegetables, I can imagine the nutrients seeping into my body, making me happier, stronger, and healthier. When I exercise, I imagine my muscles taking shape and my endorphins releasing, making me strong. It’s a type of mindfulness that has had a huge impact on me.
The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is body image, and nothing has made me more confident or as happy with myself as prioritising my physical health by eating more mindfully and exercising, and that’s also had a staggering impact on my mental health.
So whilst it’s absolutely right that we call out woo-peddlers on the internet and try and tackle the false narrative they spread, the impact of our diet and overall lifestyle on our mental health cannot be denied. It will not cure mental illness but it can improve our overall wellbeing, and although there are times where our mental illness might make cooking, eating, and exercise seem impossible, if we try to adopt positive changes for when we are feeling mentally healthier then we will still see the benefits. It’s not about being perfect, it’s definitely not about fixating on what we eat or becoming unhealthily obsessed with “healthy” eating (click here for information on Orthorexia) but about making positive changes for yourself and the world around you. Make yourself, your health, and the environment around you a priority and see how it impacts your overall sense of wellbeing.