World Food Day and Taking Care of Our Mental Health

Guest Blog By: Rebecca Thompson, PhD, California State University, Sacramento*

As we recognize World Food Day this month, I think about how our relationship with food is simultaneously very personal, and also universal, and how this relationship with food can play a major role in our mental health. We all know that nutrition is important, and we juggle new messages every day about what foods to eat and which to avoid to improve our health and avoid obesity. Many of us have also become increasingly aware of where our food comes from, what impact its production has on the environment, and how income inequality impacts access to healthy foods. We often associate all of this messaging we receive around food with how it impacts our physical health, but it’s also important to recognize the impact it has on our mental health. 

It can be overwhelming to try to process all the messages we receive about food and eating, and yet, eating is a biological function necessary for survival. It is all the advice we receive about eating that can confuse us, cause us stress, and cause us to lose touch with the kind of balance that our bodies naturally crave when it comes to food, leading to shame and stigma. In our culture we learn that certain foods are “bad” or “good,” and we are taught to associate guilt and shame with indulging in “bad” foods. This becomes even more noticeable around this time of year, with the holidays approaching. All of us have probably seen or participated in the yearly ritual of indulging around the holidays, and then resolving to diet, exercise, and lose weight in the New Year. However, it is well documented that dieting does not work. Instead, it tends to worsen not only our physical health, but also our mental health by creating deep feelings of shame.

Working to dispel the shame around food and eating can simultaneously help dispel the shame and stigma we face when it comes to addressing our mental health. In fact, decades of research have shown that when people are at a higher weight, they experience discrimination and stigma in the workplace, the media, in healthcare and educational settings, and in close relationships. Facing this type of stigma contributes to shame, which can cause depression, low self-esteem, poor body image, and worsening mental health disorders. All of these things play a role in our overall mental health. Recognizing the shame and stigma we place around food in our culture and taking a step to change our attitude toward it, intersects with our ability to improve our mental health.

This year, starting with World Food Day, let’s resolve to take the guilt and shame out of eating, and give ourselves permission to taste that piece of our favorite Halloween candy, to have a serving of those mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving Day, and to savor bites of dishes prepared lovingly by friends, partners or family members. The holiday season brings stress and anxiety for so many reasons that can have negative effects on our mental health, so when it comes to food this year, let’s remind ourselves that food can also represent important ways that we connect with each other and celebrate important moments with people we love. Let’s begin to break the cycle of associating eating with shame to improve our mental health and the mental health of our loved ones today and throughout the upcoming holidays.

Dr. Rebecca Thompson

Dr. Thompson is a licensed psychologist and the clinical coordinator at California State University, Sacramento.

*Guest blog: Each Mind Matters provides a platform for open dialogue and varying perspectives about mental health. The opinions of the author of guest blogs don’t necessarily reflect those of Each Mind Matters. If you have questions or comments about a blog written by a guest writer we encourage you to continue the discussion with the author by contacting the organization listed in the bio.