Two signs that your diet might be mentally unhealthy

When we talk about the overall health of our psyche, food isn’t the first thing that comes up in the conversation. Pop culture and social media portray things like childhood trauma, toxic relationships, and problematic personalities as the faces of mental illness. As a result, more common causes like a consistently poor diet and lifestyle often go unnoticed.

Yes, you read it right. Food, hunger and nutrition play a much bigger role when it comes to our mental health than we might think. Here are two research-backed examples of how our food choices affect our mental health.

#1. Eating habits can lead to social isolation

There are as many types of diets and food restrictions in the world today as there are types of foods. There’s veganism, vegetarianism, pescetarianism, dairy-free, and gluten-free diets just to name a few.

Whether this plethora of opportunities is good or bad for our mental health is hard to say. However, there is research showing that diets with very specific food restrictions can have the unintended consequence of increasing feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

“Food consumption is an inherently social activity – as people often acquire, prepare and eat food in social contexts,” explain researchers Kaitlin Woolley, Ayelet Fishbach and Rongham Michelle Wang. “We found that food restrictions predict loneliness. People who cannot eat what other people eat to some extent are less able to connect with others while eating.”

The researchers report that the link between dietary restriction and loneliness is consistent with the link between being unmarried and loneliness, which they also measured in the study.

“Both food restrictions and loneliness are growing societal problems; This research suggested they may be related epidemics,” they suggest.

If you find that your dietary restrictions are getting in the way of your social life and making you more lonely, maybe it’s time to talk to your loved ones and ask them to make room for it in their lives. This could mean asking them to stock up on things to eat or planning social gatherings at restaurants that have multiple diet options on the menu.

Alternatively, there may be areas where you could compromise when eating, making it easier to coordinate a meal together that everyone enjoys. Surely many parents reading this have some experience of this, perhaps in the form of mac-and-cheese-and-juice-box dinner night or some other dubious-healthy but kid-approved food combination.

#2. Extremely healthy food can be unhealthy

Losing weight and a slim body are considered to be characteristics of a healthy person in our society. Keep in mind that this is a fairly reductive way of looking at overall health and well-being. Additionally, striving for a lean physique can lead to several mental illnesses, including eating disorders.

Orthorexia is a condition associated with significant dietary restrictions, including cutting out entire food groups. Orthorectics tend not to consume food that has been processed with pesticides, herbicides, or artificial substances, and they are very concerned about the techniques and materials used in food preparation. Sound familiar?

Simply put, orthorexia is such an extreme form of healthy eating that it’s unhealthy.

“Orthorexia nervosa is a type of eating disorder that can easily hide behind the premise of clean eating or healthy eating,” explains Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, Chief Medical Officer of Within Health.

According to Oliver-Pyatt, for orthorectics, the pursuit of health becomes a kind of mechanical experience.

“The social aspect of eating and the enjoyment of eating are considered irrelevant to the individual who foregoes social interactions and potentially meaningful and important aspects of life in favor of pursuing healthy eating,” she says. “The excessive focus on the ingredients in food deprives people of the very real human, lived and joyful experience of eating.”

For people at risk of developing this condition, Oliver-Pyatt suggests focusing on improving one’s relationship with food by practicing what she calls “internal regulation.”

“When our eating is internally regulated (what we call mindful eating), our eating patterns change so that we neither overeat nor undereat,” she says. “The orchestra of neurotransmitters and hormones that connect the brain, gut and body can all interact and guide us to eat according to our biological and even, yes, psychological needs.”

Conclusion: It may sound corny, but you are what you eat — even when it comes to your sanity. Nutrition research and its impact on our minds point to a reality that is often ignored: Mental health isn’t just about addressing your emotions in therapy, it’s about maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

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