Food: The Bigger Picture

Kat Nicholls
By Kat Nicholls,
updated on Dec 19, 2019

Food: The Bigger Picture

From supporting our mental health to its impact on the planet, we look beyond food’s physical composition to see the different roles it plays in our lives

Whether you’re a foodie who loves trying multiple dishes at fancy restaurants or someone who sees food as nothing but fuel, we all have one thing in common –  we need to eat to survive. This simple fact makes food an integral part of our lives.

The meals we eat frame our day, bring us joy and connect us with others. Sitting around a table of food with friends is a beautiful way to create a sense of community and belonging. Eating a varied diet can nourish both body and mind, helping us feel as good as we possibly can.

Food can, however, have a dark side. For those struggling with an eating disorder, food becomes an enemy or tool for self-destruction. Society has given food a sense of morality, labelling some as good and some as bad, skewing our view of health. The way we eat not only affects us, but the world around us. Our farming habits are impacting the planet in a devastating way and it’s time we acknowledged this and made a change.

Understanding the physical health benefits of different foods is, of course, something we advocate for. The more informed we are, the more agency we have over our choices. Perhaps though, it’s time we step back and look at food from every angle. Seeing the different roles diet plays can help us assess our own eating habits in a more holistic way.

The mental health role

We are starting to learn more about the importance of eating well for mental health and specifically, how gut health ties in with this. Eating a diet rich in nutrients and fatty acids helps the neurons in our brain communicate better and a recent study has found that increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables you eat lowers the risk of clinical depression.

Nutritionist Resource member and nutritionist Sarah Hanratty expands on why gut health is so important for mental wellness.

“Certain strains of gut bacteria have the capacity to create inflammation and could influence mental health via the vagus nerve. Current research is pointing to a strong relationship between chronic inflammation and depression.”

Eating well can be a form of self-care, giving your body and mind what it needs to thrive. Learning which foods help you feel better mentally, and which foods make you feel worse is a great place to start.

For those with disordered eating, every mealtime can be a stressor. Eating problems can be overcome and with the right support, it’s entirely possible that you’ll be able to eat in a joyful way again. Seeking help is the first step.

Counselling can help you unpick the root of your illness and help you devise healthy ways of coping with difficult emotions that don’t involve food. Working with an experienced nutrition professional can help you learn how to nourish yourself again with a balanced eating plan.

Our mental health is as important as our physical health, and should never be dismissed - even when it comes to our food choices. Getting to know yourself and learning which foods nourish your body, and which nourish your mind, is key.

The cultural role

Every culture and country has its own customs and traditions when it comes to food. Just today in the office we had a debate with American employee Amie over the definition of ‘biscuit’. Americans would slather their version in gravy while us Brits would dunk our version in a cup of tea. The difference is both beautiful and mind-boggling.

For many immigrants, coming to the UK means letting go of their homes and many aspects of their culture in a bid to ‘fit in’ with the British way of life. Holding onto the food of their home country is a key way of expressing their identity.

Talking to Refinery29, founder of Pop’s Kitchen Marie Mitchell answers the question: How important is it to celebrate your culture through food?

“I don’t think it’s necessarily important, more it’s just how food is explored in many cultures. A lot of BAME groups have traditionally come from places with less, in a commercial sense, so food was a way to celebrate that and was accessible. So that is something that has passed down through the generations, even when opportunities arise and one's situation changes.”

Whether it’s a food enjoyed in your home culture or a particular meal your Granddad used to make, food holds within it memories and parts of our identity.

The environmental role

The way we’re currently eating is making a big impact on the planet – and not in a good way. Food and agriculture account for 30% of global greenhouse gasses and is considered the largest driver of environmental degradation and climate instability.

As we’re becoming more aware of climate change and plastic pollution, more of us are making changes for a more sustainable planet. From reusable coffee cups and metal straws to electric cars, it’s noticeable that our society is wising up.  

One of the best things we can do for our planet is to reduce our meat intake. This can be as simple as replacing certain meals with vegetarian alternatives (taking a flexitarian approach) or following the Planetary diet.

“The key purpose behind creating this diet is to save lives, feed 10 billion people, and all without causing catastrophic damage to the planet.

“Developed by 37 of the world's top scientists at EAT-Lancet, the Planetary Diet acknowledges the changes we can make in our meals to support sustainability, while still getting the nutrients we need.”  

For some, the threat to the planet is enough for them to become fully vegan. If you are thinking about becoming a vegetarian or vegan but aren’t sure how to ensure you’re getting enough nutrients, you may want to consult a nutritionist.

Food is multifaceted. It can bring so much joy to our lives if we learn how to eat in a way that benefits us and the planet. But, balance is essential here.

By all means consider the impact your food is having on your health and the world around us, but don’t punish yourself for buying plastic-wrapped convenient food from time to time or enjoying a family-sized bar of chocolate when cravings hit. We need to eat in a way that’s not going to induce guilt every meal time.

The better your relationship is with food, the happier you’ll be exploring every element. To learn more about the ways food impacts us, visit Nutritionist Resource and learn more from a nutrition professional.

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