Why Food Isn't the Enemy: Eating Healthily When You've Got Depression
Written by: Rebecca
Food - it’s great, isn’t it? Well, not always. When I was first diagnosed with depression, I completely lost my appetite, as well as any desire to cook. However, even though any athlete will tell you just how important nutrition is, it was as if my illness was trying to undermine me, and food became the enemy. As a keen cyclist I understand just how necessary proper fueling is to my performance. Without the right food I simply can’t ride as far or as fast; this is especially true on the 100-mile sportives I take part in.
It’s simple: in order to function our bodies need energy, and this is as true for our brains as for any other part of our body. Without the energy that food supplies, both neural function and brain chemistry will be negatively affected.
I’m sure we’ve all been there: for whatever reason we’ve skipped a meal - maybe you just didn’t have time for breakfast, or a deadline meant you worked through lunch - and hunger has struck. You feel your concentration slip. Even simple tasks like typing suddenly seem complicated, and you forget what you’re doing halfway through doing it.
But possibly the most noticeable change for those of us with depression is the change in our mood. My favourite portmanteau word is hangry - getting angry because you’re hungry. This so perfectly describes that totally irrational anger I experience when I haven’t eaten for a while. I can feel that anger rising up inside me. I know it’s unjustified but there’s nothing I can do about it - other than eat something.
This is an excellent example of how the physical and psychological affect each other - what we put (or don’t put) in our bodies affects our minds. Athletes will also tell us how important the mental aspect is to performance. There are plenty of occasions in which talented sportsmen or women have failed because they couldn’t hold it together mentally. On the other hand, Muhammad Ali was a master of the psychological game.
We think of depression as purely psychological, a mental illness. But it has a physical aspect, as do all mental disorders. Anyone who’s suffered anxiety will surely recall several physical symptoms, including sweating, raised heart rate, shortness of breath, increased temperature, reddening skin, and so on. What happens in the body and brain affects what happens in the mind and vice versa.
To get technical for a moment, seratonin is a well-known mood regulator. It is made naturally in the brain from trytophan, a nonessential amino acid, with some help from the B vitamins. Trytophan is found in almost all protein-rich foods. In short, what we eat plays a huge part in how we feel.
"How can you properly fuel your brain if you’re simply not interested in eating? And then of course you start putting pressure on yourself because you’re not eating properly and the guilt sets in. Food becomes the enemy, leaving you in a downward spiral of negative emotions."
There are a couple of major issues with all this. First, one of the more common symptoms of depression is a lack of appetite. How can you properly fuel your brain if you’re simply not interested in eating? And then of course you start putting pressure on yourself because you’re not eating properly and the guilt sets in. Food becomes the enemy, leaving you in a downward spiral of negative emotions. Or at least that’s how it worked for me.
On top of that, when my depression was really bad I could barely get out of bed, never mind cook a healthy, nutritious meal. In his book “Reasons to Stay Alive”, Matt Haig praises his then girlfriend (now wife) Andrea for her support, saying he probably wouldn’t have made it without her. I had the opposite experience.
Some nine years ago, when I was signed off work, my (now ex) boyfriend J would come home in the evening and start pointedly tidying up around me. He wasn’t actually putting anything away, just moving things around to make the point that I hadn’t done any housework. He’d then ask what was for dinner. When I replied I didn’t know, he’d order himself a pizza. Not for us, but for himself. I would end up making myself toast and marmite. Not exactly the energy-giving meal I needed.
"It’s my wish that everyone had at least one Andrea in their lives. Someone who would come in from work, cook a healthy meal, and do it with grace. And not get too angry when it didn’t all get eaten. I’m lucky enough to have someone like that now."
Sadly, for every Andrea out there, I suspect there are many more J’s. People who can’t or won’t understand what we’re going through or offer support. It’s my wish that everyone had at least one Andrea in their lives. Someone who would come in from work, cook a healthy meal, and do it with grace. And not get too angry when it didn’t all get eaten. I’m lucky enough to have someone like that now.
So what about those who are struggling alone? How do you overcome that double whammy of not feeling up to cooking and loss of appetite? The first thing is planning. It’s so much easier to get things done if you’ve got a plan in place. First, sketch out a week’s meals and make sure you’ve got all the ingredients you need. The trick is to keep it simple - a five course buffet might sound nice, but will you really have the energy to make and eat it? And be flexible. If you feel like you can only manage beans on toast, then have beans on toast, even if you’d planned carbonara - there are times when all I want is a cheese and marmite sandwich, so that’s what I have. As Cap’n Jack Sparrow might say, they’re not rules, more guidelines.
The internet is a fantastic resource, with millions of free recipes and videos, but the sheer number can be off-putting. I’m a huge fan of social media, and I combine Twitter with Pinterest to find and save recipes that appeal to me. Accounts I follow include @OneGreenPlanet, @deliciousmag, @BestRecipesUK and even Channel 4’s @SundayBrunchC4. You can even follow me @IdoruKnits, if you want, or check out my Pinterest page to see what recipes I’ve been Pinning. All this makes cooking that little bit easier and helps you get excited about food again.
This last point is an important one. Even if you’ve got the energy to cook, why bother if you’ve got no appetite? It’s all about rekindling an interest in food. Treat yourself to your favourite meal, or experiment with new dishes, flavours and ingredients. As well as social media, take a look at websites like BBC Good Food or Delicious to find new ideas to inspire you. Then take that inspiration and create something delectable. Not only will you be fueling your body and brain, but the morale boost from knowing you’ve managed to cook something good for you will be amazing.
One recipe that went straight onto my favourites list was a pesto and tomato swirl loaf, which sounds complicated but really isn’t. It’s great with soup or just with cheeses and salad.
These days I’m lucky enough to be able to control my depression without using drugs, and a big part of that is being able to eat a healthy diet. I also left the unsupportive J and found my own Andrea - although he might not be best pleased if I tried calling him Andrea. Food - it really is glorious.
List to Improve Your Eating Habits The Easy Way:
1. Plan ahead - include lots of vegetables!
2. Make a list and stick to it
3. Establish a support network
4. Go shopping with a friend - this will help encourage you to get out and make shopping less of a chore
5. Use the internet as inspiration for new recipes and foods
6. Don’t be too hard on yourself! Sometimes it really is OK to just have beans on toast