by Erik Heninger, Heninger Garrison Davis LLC.
I have a complex relationship with food. Let me rephrase that: I LOVE food. Fried food, salty food, sweet food. My mouth starts to water when I imagine Sunday afternoon lunches with fried chicken or creamy salty casseroles. A fresh brewed gallon of sweet tea? Yes, please! Sadly, the food I love doesn’t love me back. Recognizing the asymmetry in this relationship has taken many years and too many unwanted pounds.
Without question, the accessibility and efficiency of fast food stops along the interstate has affected our physical health. The explosion of food delivery services means we barely have to get off the couch to satisfy our cravings. But the cost to all of us is more than our physical health. More and more we’re coming to recognize how our nutrition – good or bad – impacts our mental health.
Let’s briefly examine just two critical parts of the body – our brain and “gut” – to grasp the importance of nutrition. The human microbiome, also known as the gut environment, is a community of bacteria that is healthy for the body. Food affects this gut environment and, in turn, the function of the brain and mood. When good microbes are introduced into this environment through healthy foods, they are broken down into positive substances that feed the body and brain. However, when unhealthy foods are introduced, they break down into negative substances that overcome the good bacteria and create inflammation in the gut—which, in research, has been shown to be the basis of several mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.
Simply put, when you’re eating unhealthy foods, like processed foods or fast foods, they are more toxic to our body. The bad microbes in the gut start to thrive because they are being fed with the foods that they like and they overcome the good microbes. When the bacteria balance is disrupted, it can lead to a whole range of diseases.
Consider this: our brains are constantly working. Whether it takes care of our thoughts and movements, our breathing and heartbeat – even while we’re asleep, it keeps going. Working constantly requires a constant supply of fuel. This fuel comes from the food we eat and the level of nutrition in that food makes all the difference. Thus, what we eat directly affects the structure and function of our brain and our mood.
Our brains function best when the fuel we provide is premium. Think of the brain like an expensive car: premium fuel in equals premium response; lower premium fuel equals lower quality response. Eating high quality foods which contain a healthy dose of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects against oxidative stress.
Just like the expensive car, eating “low-premium” fuel can damage the brain. If substances from “low-premium” fuel (such as what you get from processed or refined foods) get to the brain, it has little ability to get rid of them. For example, diets high in refined sugar are harmful to the brain. In addition to worsening the body’s regulation of insulin, these foods also promote inflammation and oxidative stress. In fact, multiple medical studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders such as depression.
Wanting to make a change in what you eat? Try small steps first. Start paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel. Reflect on how you feel immediately after eating and how you feel the following day. Try cutting out processed foods for a few weeks. Consider how that made you feel. Then introduce foods back into your diet and see how you feel.
The practice of law is hard. Getting the proper nutrition in a stressful high-paced profession is also hard. Perhaps being intentional about my nutrition is a step to making my journey a little easier. What have I got to lose?