Jeffrey Zurofsky’s first article was submitted by his colleague and founder of Newport Academy, Jamison Monroe, Jr.
There’s no question that what we eat matters not just to our bodies, but to our minds as well. But it isn’t just what’s on your plate that matters. Though nutrition is a key component, every aspect of our relationship to food—from growing it to cooking and serving it—has the potential to enhance our well-being and our sense of connection with the planet and with the people we love. Here are five scientifically validated ways that our meals can be medicine for our mental health.
1. Growing food reduces stress/increases life satisfaction. A review study published in Preventive Medicine Reports showed that gardening improves psychological and social health, as well as physical wellness—through exposure to nature, exercise, time spent with others in community or family gardens, and having more fresh produce available. Plus, getting our hands dirty turns out to be really good for us. Researchers have found a link between soil bacteria and stress resilience via the microbiome, which promotes healthy brain function.
2. The creativity involved in cooking produces positive emotions. A recent study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology dissected what we know anecdotally: Getting in the zone with a creative project (like cooking a meal) can lift your mood. Researchers followed more than 650 young adults to track the correlation between their everyday activities and their emotional states. Not surprisingly, they experienced greater flourishing and positivity on the days following increased creativity.
3. Cooking for others is good for us. Research has repeatedly confirmed the so-called “helper’s high”—the sense of well-being we feel when we do things purely to help others. People who regularly engage in volunteer activities have lower rates of depression and a greater sense of purpose in life (they also live longer). The same principle is at play when we give our time and energy to making food for others. “Cooking and serving a meal, and having people enjoy it, instantaneously creates a positive feedback loop,” says my colleague Jeffrey Zurofsky, culinary program director for teen mental health treatment programs at Newport Academy.
4. Eating slowly and mindfully boosts mental health. First, there are the benefits of mindfulness: A review study at Johns Hopkins found that meditation had the same effect as antidepressants on symptoms of anxiety and depression. And gratitude, which seems to be a natural byproduct of mindfulness, strengthens the prescription: Studies by positive psychology pioneers Robert Emmons, Martin Seligman, and Barbara Fredrickson confirm that focusing on what you’re grateful for—or offering gratitude to someone else—immediately increases your happiness levels. Taking the time to notice and appreciate all the sensations of enjoying a meal, and feeling grateful for it, is an effective way to incorporate mindfulness, since there are multiple opportunities to do so every day.
5. The nutrients in a healthy meal have multiple protective effects. What we eat has the power to prevent or help reverse mental health challenges. Multiple studies, including the groundbreaking SMILES Trial, have demonstrated the amazing impact of food on our mood—linking specific nutrients to measurable positive outcomes. For example, omega-3 fatty acids found in wild-caught cold-water fish like salmon and mackerel may have antidepressant effects.
This holiday season, you can incorporate some of these principles and see the effects for yourself. Cook a meal for friends or family. When you sit down at the table, have everyone fill their neighbor’s plate for them, Zurofsky suggests. “The person doing the serving has to really pay attention to someone else,” he says. “There’s a bonding and a knowledge of each other that gets created.”