3 Lessons on Food and Health From a Chef Living With Mental Illness



a woman sitting at a table in a restaurant: photo of woman holding a fork with pasta, eyes closed and smiling


© The Mighty
photo of woman holding a fork with pasta, eyes closed and smiling

I’m a chef and a cultural anthropologist with a master’s degree focusing on the intersection of food and culture, which means I come to the topic of cooking from both a cultural perspective and from the perspective of wanting it to be delicious. I’m interested in the ways in which eating together binds us together as a community and the ways in which it can actually “heal” us.

On the flip side, I am the survivor of an eating disorder and have struggled with my mental health due to childhood trauma. My own personal relationship to food has been ambivalent at best and a real struggle at worst. Food rules, exercise rules, “good and bad” foods — all fueled by my need to control some element of my world. But beyond that, as many others with trauma can attest to, my mental health struggles have resulted in chronic health issues related to digestion including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gallbladder issues and general nonspecific issues with tolerating food. My mood immediately affects my desire to and the ability to eat, and this is something I continue to struggle with. Therefore, it’s ironic that something I found so personally challenging has become my passion in life. 

When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit and we were forced into lockdown, a remarkable trend became apparent. People, in their boredom and angst, began to turn to cooking and baking for comfort and some semblance of normalcy and connection. I found this trend fascinating from a professional and personal perspective. It prompted me to delve further into what might be fueling this phenomenon.

What I discovered was not entirely surprising to me based upon my research, professional experience and personal struggles. Three factors emerged: There’s a connection between the process of cooking or baking and the release of feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin. I also found that certain foods themselves can increase these feel-good hormones which can help with combatting anxiety, depression and the loneliness of isolation we were all feeling. And finally, I learned the degree to which our dietary habits can directly affect the ways in which we manage specific chronic illnesses, which is of primary importance in terms of our mental health.

1. Feel-good hormones.

Neurobiological research into the specific chemicals involved with mood has become important in our management of mental health. Certainly, psychotropic medications can help regulate these chemicals, but we can also manage them through things like therapy, exercise, creative expression, social interaction and what we eat. Even the actual process of cooking itself has been purported to be beneficial to our mental health, as was noted in this article in The Guardian. Likewise, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, Danny Lewis suggests:

“[B]aking can help … mood by providing small tasks to focus on in a manner similar to meditation. In order to put together a good meal, cooks have to be constantly in the moment, adding ingredients, adjusting the heat of the stove and tasting their food to make sure everything will come out alright—all of which can be helpful techniques in treating some forms of mental illness.” 

Video: These Breakfast Foods Might Help Ease Anxiety (Buzz60)

These Breakfast Foods Might Help Ease Anxiety

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From my own experience as a chef, I find the repetition and sense of completion accompanied by the creativity involved in cooking to be the most mindful thing I do. Nothing helps calm me down and focus my attention the way cooking does. It even halts my aggressive overthinking inner voice temporarily which seldom occurs at any other point throughout the day.

2. Foods that promote mental health.

We know that consuming fewer processed foods and more diverse foods — eating the rainbow if you will — is one of the best ways to stay healthy. But as a chef, I’m also concerned with enjoying food and not obsessing over every minute detail. To quote Oscar Wilde, “everything in moderation, including moderation.” That being said, there are specific foods that can support your mental health by contributing specific minerals and nutrients to your body which are directly correlated with feel-good neurotransmitters. The following are just a few notable ones:

Fatty fish like salmon, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids, are a great source for serotonin regulation. Lean proteins, like chicken, eggs and legumes, can increase tryptophan production and help regulate serotonin production. Green leafy vegetables, nuts and whole grains can boost vitamin B production, a well-known way to control depression, anxiety and promote better sleep. Yogurt and other fermented foods can repopulate your gut with healthy bacteria, something that is becoming a hot-button issue in terms of regulating mood and general well-being.

Knowing how to incorporate these foods into your diet in fun and delicious ways is key. That’s where a chef comes in. My culinary approach leans heavily upon Mediterranean cuisines and therefore, I tend to cook with more vegetables and whole grains and less meat. The key to making these foods delicious is in learning how to use spices and herbs creatively and to extract the most flavor from these foods, often by roasting them, which allows the natural sugars in many of these foods to caramelize and become intensely flavorful.

3. Managing chronic illness through dietary restrictions.

One thing I’ve personally noticed in 15 years of being a chef is the increase of food allergies and other dietary restrictions. There is an increasing number of my customers who have turned to diet to help them manage their chronic illnesses and neurobiological challenges, particularly those involving autoimmune issues and inflammatory issues. I have become something of an oddity in my industry for being uniquely able to handle everything from gluten-free and dairy-free to paleo, keto, AIP and many, many more. I don’t ask why my customers need to refrain from consuming various foods; I simply ask for detailed lists of foods they can’t consume.

Anecdotally, however, a majority of these customers aren’t allergic, nor do they have celiac disease. More often than not, they tell me that their joints, gut and skin issues have cleared up and their brain fog has diminished by adjusting their diets, but what they have given up in the process has been the enjoyment of eating food, entertaining and being social in the context of a meal, which has had a deleterious effect upon them mentally and emotionally. That’s where I come in.

Understanding how I can make substitutions for ingredients in recipes based upon the guidelines I have been given is like my greatest superpower. I thrive on the challenge and I get immense joy in witnessing someone be able to eat a meal they didn’t prepare for themselves without having to worry about how they are going to feel the next day. That, to me, is the greatest gift I can give and receive.

Food and eating is one of the few things that binds us together as humans. We all need to eat to survive. But more than that, food isn’t simply about survival; it’s about who we are as people. It reflects our culture, our values and our individual sensibilities. Understanding how important food is to this aspect of our humanity is where my vocation and unique perspective comes in. My mission in life has been not only to feed people delicious food but to also help bring people together by doing so. When I became vocal about my own mental health struggles, I saw a unique opportunity to combine my food advocacy with my mental health advocacy. I hope to inspire others to cook more, to experiment more, and above all to be more conscious of how integral what we consume is not just to how we feel physically, but how we fare mentally. Bonne santé.

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