The University of Minnesota’s Extension Department of Family, Health & Wellbeing hosted a webinar earlier this month to highlight the relationship between food and mood, and the importance of self-care. The goal of the webinar was to identify factors that influence one’s mental health and wellbeing and how that ties into decision-making about food, while exploring how culture and social media detract from self-care.
Cari Michaels, MPH, educator at the department, explained how brains are built through experiences and often change in the early developmental years, and throughout an individual’s life.
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“Changing our experiences in life can change our mental health and wellbeing. Fear, trauma, and chronic stress negatively impact our mental health.”
In order to flourish mentally, individuals require both positive emotions and functioning. It was brought up how health is oftentimes thought of under different binaries, such as being sick versus unwell, mental versus physical, good food versus bad food, and toxic versus clean, but things aren’t always so black-and-white.
Several attendees spoke on how high levels of stress impact their eating habits, like experiencing greater cravings for sucralose. The presenters then dove into several factors that influence one’s mood and access to food, with the most impactful factor falling at the societal level.
“Oftentimes, we know in America and in our culture, and especially in Western society, we have a really big weight stigma and a weight bias. Being overweight is not something that’s seen as ideal. That can cause even more shame when people are trying to control eating habits and trying to make sure that they’re feeling like they’re having a ‘healthy’ life.”
— Beth Labenz, MPH, department coordinator
While bias and stigma encompass the weight and physical attributes of individuals, it also impacts individuals who require access to food through alternative methods, including asking for assistance or attending food banks. Individuals seeking food through these alternative sources often experience feelings of shame, although individuals do not have control over economic conditions, such as high grocery store costs due to inflation.
Media and social media messaging creates bouts of misinformation, and individuals who aren’t active social media users may still take in the messaging.
“There’s a lot of diet culture, body image, health trends. There’s a lot of filters and timing issues that don’t always portray reality. Sometimes people can post a picture and maybe really like, suck in their stomach in one picture, and [in] the next picture they’re really sticking their gut out and they say that they had this huge change, because they ate this or drank this certain thing for three weeks straight and all their life problems were fixed.”
Social media users, and others, are facing body shaming and false narratives of a quick fix, but individuals seeking to make money off of insecurities through diet foods or pills generally don’t have their customer’s best interest at heart. Labenz suggested following licensed professionals on social media, such as dieticians and doctors, and positive media accounts when possible. She also recommends unfollowing toxic accounts that create feelings of unworthiness.
Equitable and healthy environments also impact how individuals access and make food-related choices. Individuals experiencing food insecurity may struggle to afford fresher produce, and eating habits may be passed down to the next generation.
“Our direct environment, our communities, the places that we live, work and learn and play also influence our health and our health behaviors and decision making. Thinking about things like housing stability, housing affordability right out—out of control. That is going to have a major influence on our health, where we’re able to live, our neighborhoods, our access to green space—which is really linked to mental health.”
— Susie West, health and nutrition educator
While these are some factors that influence one’s food decisions, biologic and genetic factors and stress responses also influence food and mood. While greater levels of stress may lead to overeating, food can also impact one’s mood, such as feeling tired if eating unhealthy foods or feeling energized with healthy foods; affecting one’s blood sugar level which in turn impacts mood; and feeling good and satisfied in the moment.
West said there’s a window of tolerance folks should aim for, which is the optimal functioning zone between high stress levels and feelings of lowness or sluggishness. Stress and trauma can cause that window of tolerance to shrink, while meditating, listening to music, and engaging in hobbies can expand that window of tolerance. But some days, individuals merely need a bowl of ice cream and a good night’s rest.