Yesterday I attended some mental health awareness training.
It was generally a really good session that taught me quite a few things about anxiety and depression.
But it also brought a couple of things home to me that I feel compelled to raise awareness about.
Towards the end of the training, the presentation inevitably turned to diet and exercise and how these can impact your mental health.
I was expecting this, of course.
The presenter explained the importance of a balanced diet, regular exercise, and staying hydrated.
She then went on to talk about how we need to be avoiding ‘unhealthy’ foods at all costs because of the negative impact on our health.
She then went as far as to tell us how she had been really ‘naughty’ earlier in the day as she had given in to a caffeine-free, diet coke instead of her usual water.
Now, I have 2 serious issues with this.
I have spoken on several occasions about how talking about food as ‘healthy’, ‘unhealthy, ‘good’, ‘bad’ etc is not helpful and can actually create stress and anxiety.
When we label food in this way, we automatically give it power. We try to restrict all the ‘bad’ things and then feel guilt or shame when we end up inevitably eating them.
Ironically, we are also more prone to OVEREAT foods we class as ‘unhealthy’ for this exact reason – they become the forbidden fruit that we cannot stop fantasising about.
A much better approach is to allow yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods, to see them all as emotionally equal.
Instead of obsessing about the low nutritional value of certain foods, reflect on how they make you physically feel compared with other options.
When you shift your focus, eating becomes much less stressful and you will be able to find balance with much more ease.
I often recommend that my clients think about junk food as play food, as something that has an important role to play in their lives. You can read more about that here.
I am raising this point here because I think it is so important that we begin to realise just how much diet culture is infiltrated within our society.
Yes, what we eat has an impact on our mental health but I would argue that attaching rules and making moral judgements about food impacts our mental state just as much, if not more.
If we were allowed to just become more attuned with our bodies, if the subliminal messages would fade into the distance so we didn’t feel stressed or confused about every bite of food, I am sure much of the population would be in a happier place.
Negative self talk
This brings me on to my next point.
The presenter spoke in a lot of detail about how negative self-talk is a catalyst for anxiety.
She then went on to talk about how ‘naughty’ she had been for having her can of diet, caffeine-free coke.
Can you see the irony?
She has told herself that coke is ‘bad’ and is therefore beating herself up for drinking it.
I think this very clearly demonstrates how harmful it is to categorise food.
If you are constantly living by diet ‘rules’, you will constantly be bashing yourself when you ‘allow’ unpermitted food or drink. Over time, this erodes your confidence, self-esteem and trust in your own body.
There is a convincing body of evidence to suggest that demonising foods leaves people terrified of eating the ‘wrong’ thing which hurts your psychological health and well-being.
To sum up, I think it is safe to say that the lady presenting this course had no intention of doing any harm but ‘diet culture’ is so ingrained within our psyche that we do not even notice it and this is worrying.
There needs to be more awareness of how diet rules are dressing themselves up as being a ‘health’ pursuit, especially amongst professionals who are clearly having an influence over many.
This training was for managers and leaders, the messages will be disseminated far and wide.
I will say that the trainer was very knowledgable and great for the most part.
It is just unfortunate that she was not quite as self-aware as she may have liked to think.