You Are What You Eat

There’s no doubt that what we eat can have a profound impact on our mood and our mental health. What is surprising is how little this has been studied and reported in peer reviewed medical journals.

Any parent can tell you about sugar highs and sugar crashes in their children, and insulin spikes or breaks obviously change a person’s abilities and outlook. Fish oil has been reported to have a profound effect on preventing suicide in people with depression. People with celiac disease have an extraordinarily high rate of bipolar disorder. But most of this remains anecdotal, with little solid research to support it.

Is it all so obvious that we don’t need to study it? Or is medicine so pharmaceutical-based that we miss what is right in front of our faces – and in our mouths?

Gut-brain connections have been recognized. There are serotonin receptors in the gastro-intestinal system and anyone who has experienced great stress knows it can torture their abdomen. The deterioration of mental health in young people can be traced to many societal factors. But we must not overlook the fact that 67% of teenagers’ calories now come from hyper-processed foods. Poor diet has led to a spike in rates of obesity and diabetes. It’s not much of a leap to determine that a poor diet can also lead to poor mental health.

Nutritional psychiatry is in its infancy, and the few papers it has produced have yielded more questions than answers. It is telling that the most informative article I could find about it appeared in a business magazine, not a health journal. But no one disputes that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, grains and natural protein, will improve mental as well as physical well-being.

What we must be cautious of is treating severe mental illness through diet, or even attributing severe mental illness to diet. The research is sketchy, what little of it there is, and existing pharmaceutical therapies are tested, proven and effective. Of course we should all eat better. But we shouldn’t turn our backs on what we know works. Like medicine.

I’ll stick to my meds and eat well. Diet and physical health are intimately related as, I’m sure, are diet and mental health. Perhaps the doctor an apple a day can keep away is a psychiatrist. But we don’t know yet for sure.

As with so much else in life we’re left with the opportunity to make sensible, well-informed choices. We should eat better, just as we should exercise more and get more sleep. Small changes in our lifestyles can yield tremendous positive results. Eat less food out of boxes. Eat more food closer to its source. It tastes better and it will make you healthier.

Your mood will surely improve. Perhaps, so too will your mental illness.


In my upcoming book, Practicing Mental Illness, I write about meaningful work as a superior form of meditation. You can focus on one thing at a time, produce something tangible and share it with others. What better form of practice than cooking?

In the Zen monasteries I have visited, the most important position beside the abbot is the cook. In the kitchen, chopping vegetables, heating oil, stirring sauces, all in silence, work truly becomes meditation. You can bring this healing exercise in focused attention into your own kitchen, and then enjoy delicious wholesome food with your family and friends.

Sure, sitting in silence, focusing on your breath, is what most people think about when they think about meditation. And it’s the form of meditation most people try. But keep it simple and turn simple things into practice. Nothing is as ready for this practice, or as necessary for our well-being, as preparing, serving and sharing good food.