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Some parents (and particular cultures) feed each other as a sign of love, therefore to reject food is to reject love. We then grow up to believe that food is love, so seek comfort in food as adults. We were consoled with food, rewarded with food, placated with food, and treats were withheld as punishment. Think about the great irony of rewarding a child for behaving at the dentist with a sugar drenched lollipop! And this is where comfort eating is born. If you want to stop comfort eating, you must remind yourself that food is not love, food is nutrition for our bodies. When we need comfort, we should be taking that from the appropriate places, usually from meaningful connections with other people.

Improving self-esteem

Let’s shift into our adult experience. People ask therapists all the time how to improve their self-esteem, and there is an irritatingly simple answer: when you do things that make you feel good, you feel good. And when you do things that make you feel bad, you feel bad – this obviously extends to food as well. We make dozens of choices around food every day and each unhelpful choice chips away a bit at our self-esteem, mood, confidence, and belief in ourselves. If you want to eat for mental health, you need to make it a priority to deliberately nurture your body with each choice that you make about food – only then you will feel physically and mentally well.

Bad habits

If we take it a step further and consider our lifestyles, we’ll find a lot of damage to our mental health lurking in our daily routines relating to food. We rely on stimulants like sugar, caffeine and nicotine for energy, and we use alcohol and pharmaceuticals to relax. By doing this, we’re increasing our experience of stress and putting our bodies on a genuine rollercoaster with no real nutrition. Then when we skip meals and don’t follow a routine, we rely on takeaways and high calorie, low nutrition convenience food. This only adds to the unhealthy rollercoaster. It also means that our sugar levels, metabolism and cycadean rhythm never have a chance to stabilise, which wreaks havoc on our mood, affects our ability to concentrate, generates unnecessary stress and ultimately has a dire impact on our wellbeing.

Instead, here’s how to eat for positive mental health:

  • Use mealtimes as the backbone of your routine and eat three tasty, nourishing meals, off a plate, at a table, with a knife and fork, evenly spaced through the day.
  • See each meal as an opportunity for connection with yourself and others, an opportunity to mindfully enjoy the food and take a break from the rest of your day. No cellphones, no rushing, no junk food.
  • The satisfaction that comes from food mostly comes from the presentation, smell and obviously the delicious taste. So, to feel satisfied we don’t just have to eat enough, we have to be mindful that we’re eating, and we have to eat nice food, nicely. So put care into your meals, every time.

A positive relationship with food leads to a positive relationship with our bodies, and consequently affects our overall self-esteem as well. Make some small changes to how and what you eat, and see what a difference they can make to your mental health.

Yours in health,

The Sasfin team

About the Author

Tracy Helps
Clinical Social Worker, Kaelo

Tracy is also a counsellor, interventionist, supervisor and facilitator. She has a special interest in mental health, addiction and trauma and has 25 years’ experience working in South Africa, the USA and London.