The Connection Between Food and Mental Health

Britt LeVoir
Jan 13 · 8 min read
(Photo courtesy of Unsplash/

“You have an eating disorder”, the psychologist told me.

Her abrupt words, interjected in the middle of my own chaotic rambling, pierced like knives through my sternum- stopping my runaway mouth in its tracks. I don’t think I answered her or asked for clarification. It must have been obvious from the look on my face, the wide Bambi-esque eyes and lack of pink in my pale cheeks, that I had been struck dumb.

“You have an eating disorder,” she repeated, this time in a softer tone, as if the walls within my mental structure were due for an imminent earthquake that only she could prevent. “You don’t eat for hours and hours a day, sometimes waiting until early evening to eat your first meal. And when you do eat, you binge. Heavily. By your own admission, you rarely eat fruit unless it’s been mixed into various sugary concoctions. You’ll only eat a few vegetables, but only if they’ve been made near unrecognizable by preparation. Your diet appears to consist solely of breads, refined grains, and sugar. You don’t eat meat and rarely make up for its absence by incorporating alternative avenues of protein into your diet, so I suspect you have at least a moderate protein deficiency. You eat and eat until your abdomen starts to distend and it becomes uncomfortable to move. Your weight fluctuates from extreme to extreme on a near scheduled basis.” She paused. “I assume it’s the term eating disorder that scares you?” I nodded slowly, as if in a daze. “Okay then,” she said, “Then let’s call it disordered eating. You have a problem with disordered eating.”

Somehow that didn’t sound as frightening. I wasn’t something, I just did something. A world of difference to my fragile reasoning.

The diagnosis shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. Her words were entirely true: for as long as I can remember, I have had a complicated, at times near-abusive, relationship with food. My preference for heavy, comforting dishes stems from my Deep South-influenced upbringing. Thick, cream-laden casseroles and frequent fruit cobblers were a staple in my young years. Fried pies and weighty meats were centerpieces on our dinner table, alongside varying forms of potatoes and dishes mixed with half-cups of mayonnaise.

Nutrition wasn’t a term I was properly introduced to until I was in the fifth grade, sitting on the floor of our new health class taught by the twenty-something-year-old gym teacher. As he passed out xeroxed copies of the food pyramid, I stared at the grainy triangle with a furrowed brow. Logically, I knew that fruits and vegetables were ‘healthy’, but what about the high percentage of beef, pork, and chicken my family consumed? Wasn’t meat healthy for us, for our muscles? Weren’t the tall glasses of milk that accompanied each homemade meal essential for my bones, a necessary step to achieving my daily requirement of calcium? It would be many years yet until I would be forced to confront my warped view of food head-on.

I never struggled with my weight as a child nor as a teenager. I was raised a dancer- specifically ballet, but with a non-committal toe in each form- and the two-to-five hours spent dancing each school night, much longer on the weekends, was more than enough to combat my poor diet. Fast food cups accompanied me to class, my dance bag slung over one shoulder and a half-empty cup of Dr. Pepper in the opposite hand. I would sit at the dinner table, calves tense and aching from hours of pointe shoes, shoveling cheddar mashed potatoes and buttered bread rolls in my hungry mouth. This cycle continued on a loop until I was seventeen when I stopped dancing cold-turkey. A myriad of factors are to blame for this, many of which I no longer even remember.

My struggle with my body, its weight, and the things I put in it began then and has never stopped. Mental illness had rudely introduced itself into my life a few years before that point, a cruel genetic predisposition I hadn’t been warned of in advance. Adding rapid weight gains and losses into the mix of afflictions I was struggling to cope with at that stage was one of the worst things that could have happened. Suddenly I felt as if sand has been poured into the deep pit of depression I was already living in, making it near impossible to move my limbs or signal for help.

What is the first thing that springs to the forefront of your mind when you hear the term binge eater? If you are like most people unfamiliar with its effects, your head probably procures images of purging and bulimia nervosa. This is not entirely untrue, but not everyone who binge eats also purges and vice versa.

Arguably the most publicized sufferer of this ailment was Diana, Princess of Wales. In 1992, biographer Andrew Morton published Diana: Her True Story and thus a large portion of the world who had never previously heard of the condition became familiar with bulimia and understood the toll it had taken on The People’s Princess. Diana herself saw her eating disorder as a survival mechanism and a symptom of what was going on in her life at the time. Depending on who you ask, that is either 100% true or at least partly false. It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg- binge eating is absolutely a survival mechanism, but is it a symptom of other mental health issues, or are other mental health issues a symptom of disordered eating? I suspect the answer varies on the individual and their own journey and relationship with food.

Either way, eating disorders are an extremely serious mental health condition. They can be fatal, as can Major Depressive Disorder and many other mental illnesses, and must be given the proper amount of respect and weight by psychiatrists and psychologists alike. Eating disorders can and do effect people of any age and gender, but the rate of female sufferers tends to be higher as like many other mental illnesses- though whether this is due to actual undiscovered biological science or the ever-present stigma of men and weakness has yet to be seen or accurately documented.

So there I was, years into adult life, sat on a couch and being told by a medical professional that the way I ate wasn’t normal- far from it- and that it would begin to catch up with me very soon. In truth, it already had. My 15+ recognizable years of depressive episodes and generalized anxiety just kept ticking- the prescribed mediation sometimes taking just the edge off my raw emotional edges, and other times having no discernible effect. Trials of various medications came and went, alternative ‘experimental’ forms of therapy passed by and left me largely unchanged and still suffering deeply. Throughout it all, I was eating as I always had- skipping meals, not eating for hours and hours and hours, binging at night and hiding my empty bowls of crumbs at the bottom of the kitchen sink. It hadn’t ever seriously occurred to me that the way I was treating my physical body could also be having a major impact in my ongoing battle with my malfunctioning mind. The psychologist’s weighty diagnosis was a first, tentative step in the right direction.

Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician and often-referenced ‘Father of Medicine’ was one of the earliest known teachers of food as medicine. As the alleged attributed quote says, “Let Food Be Thy Medicine.” Alternatively Ayurveda, the ancient medical system of India, honors food and a healthy diet as a vital contribution towards sustaining good health, both physically and mentally. It has been well documented for years, centuries even, the correlation between diet and body. With the most recent wave of New Age-wellness flooding into the Western world, in particular Southern California, the place I currently call home, this concept is growing in popularity. More and more people are seeing their diet as a viable alternative to popping pills for minor ailments. Social media- Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram in particular- is spreading the message that our ancestors took for granted as mere fact: what we put into our bodies directly effects the way we feel.

Have you ever eaten an entire bag of Cheetos (don’t lie- of course you have) and laid on the couch afterwards, filled with regret and lethargic? Have you scarfed down a couple hot dogs or hamburgers straight from the grill and spent the rest of the family gathering camped out on a crowded picnic bench, loudly groaning about eating too much? We’ve all been there, but it is important to know: Food is not meant to make you feel poorly.

According to The University of Minnesota, the role of food is:

  • To maintain life
  • To maintain health
  • To allow the body to function
  • To give cells information
  • To prevent disease

To the average American, a check mark can be placed next to the first of those roles listed. But what about the others? Are we eating to maintain our health? To allow our bodies to function? As a disease preventative? To most, the answer to all of the above is a quiet and ashamed “No”.

At Georgetown Medical School, Dr. Susan Lord and Dr. James Gordon conducted nutrition classes where the students were encouraged to eliminate various things from their diet and note the differences they felt from their absence in their food choices. They eliminated sugar, gluten, dairy, food additives, red meat, and caffeine. Reportedly many felt less anxious and seemingly more energetic. They claimed to be able to sleep better and their concentration was said to have immensely improved. The results from this experiment have been duplicated many times over- for example, this one by Plos One in 2017 and this one by ScienceDirect in 2010- and cannot be ignored. In a 2019 meta-analysis by Psychosomatic Medicine, in which 11 MDs and PhDs analyzed sixteen separate studies done on the effect of diet on mental health, they concluded that dietary interventions hold promise as a novel intervention for reducing symptoms of depression across the population.

This isn’t to say you should throw all your prescriptions in a garbage bag and take it out to the bin. Far from it. Changing our diets and the way we relate to food are mere building blocks towards achieving better mental health. Eating dozens of carrots and avoiding dairy like the plague will not magically cure your severe depression or make your weekly visits to therapy unnecessary. Unfortunately. But it just might make it a little easier to get out of bed in the morning, or concentrate on finishing that essay you’ve been procrastinating about. It will definitely make your body happier, if not your mind. Yet.

It is a process and a journey, changing your relationship with food, as is most healing that is required of those of us with fashionable mental diagnoses labels to wear like badges on our weighted therapy blankets.

I’m certainly not perfect and will always struggle somewhat with disordered eating. These are deeply ingrained patterns that have become as much a habit as washing your hands before a meal. But slowly, with the help of medical professionals and throughout the process of learning the properties and value of nutrition, I am healing. You can too. All it takes is that first step. And who knows? Maybe you’ll wake up on your journey, months or years down the road, and realize that this, too, has made you mentally stronger than you ever thought possible.

And who among us doesn’t like the sound of that?

If you believe you or someone you know may be suffering from an eating order, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at (800) 931–2237.

Invisible Illness

Britt LeVoir

Written by

Britt is an avid reader and lover of words. Writing is her preferred form of self-care.

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

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