“What is a typical day’s food intake for you?” This is one question I wasn’t taught to focus on in my clinical psychology training, unless perhaps I was screening for an eating disorder, which would then generally focus on calories rather than food quality. But this pertinent question has become a core component of any assessment I do.
In my private practice, based in vibrant Wellington city, New Zealand, I see adult clients, who generally come to me for various cognitive/memory concerns, energy/fatigue problems, stress, anxiety, panic attacks, low mood, or mood swings.
I’m no longer surprised to hear when a person experiencing any one of these concerns starts their day with sugar-spiking toast or cereal. Or that they skip breakfast and head straight for back-to-back coffees before grabbing a muffin at morning tea. It’s not a shock if lunch is white processed carbohydrates purchased on the run. Snacks in-between meals may be non-existent, or more sugar, and dinner is likely to be the most substantial meal but may also be white carbohydrate heavy with a scattering of tokenistic vegetables, and in my clientele, is vegetarian or vegan 1/3 of the time.
There is usually a notable absence of protein (especially from well treated animal products), quality fats, seasonal variety, and nutrient density. Of fascination to me is that in many cases my clients will consider that they are eating a healthful diet. Generally, no links between their diet and mental health will have been made.
Of course, this lack of connection between food and mood is not their fault – how does anyone learn what their body needs to thrive these days? Or that food matters to mental health? Our food education is mostly what we learnt in our family, advertising, or the internet. When people turn to adverts or the internet there is confusion about if certain foods are healthful or harmful – meat consumption is a classic example of this, with contradictory research and opposing viewpoints based on ethical views and beliefs.
There is a general disconnection from our food supply and how this impacts on our health, as well as the expectations we place on our physiology to withstand “fast-food” in the fast-paced and disconnected society we have created.
I have made it my core business to understand and promote the importance of nutrition within psychological assessment and therapy. The field of nutritional psychology is in its infancy and at one level is highly complex, as it integrates nutrition science and nutritional biochemistry, physiology, microbiome research, hormonal and immune systems, ancestral knowledge, and traditional psychological theories.
However, in relation to the practical steps involved for someone’s wellbeing there can be a simplicity to it – at least as a starting point.The simplicity is that there is so much room for rapid improvement, through basic tweaks to what someone is eating – this has to be on an individualised basis because everyone is different. You can literally change your gut through each bite you take, and you eat for tomorrow’s mental health today.