The most talked-about reason to pursue good nutrition is for optimal physical health. This is what we usually hear about in the media- dietary tricks for weight loss, for disease management, for a healthy heart, for strong muscles, for a successful pregnancy. It’s the reason why there are over 100,000 dietitians in the United States. And with good reason- nutrition therapy is hugely effective for those things. (I wouldn’t be here, writing to you as an RD, if that weren’t true.)
But I would venture to suggest that the benefits of good nutrition go beyond merely the physical. Good nutrition can help us feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally. And if you’re seeking a fulfilling life, then nutrition can provide the foundation that allows you to achieve your dreams.
To some degree, this is a literal connection. Mental health is really about balancing chemicals in the brain. Serotonin, dopamine, endorphins… there are many chemicals that control our mood, our sleep cycle, our appetite, even our ability to be productive and creative. This is why conventional physicians can treat depression and anxiety with prescription medications. Our bodies use the foods we eat to gather the components for building and maintaining this chemical balance. There is a correlation between nutrient deficiencies and mood disorders such as anxiety or depression. If you aren’t giving your body adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals, glucose, etc, then it cannot maintain that balance, and your mental health will suffer. If you don’t provide your body with those basic tools, you aren’t giving yourself a fighting chance. (I am not suggesting that medication or therapy are unwarranted- I am a big fan of using a multi-disciplinary approach to health! I believe nutrition is a valuable tool that should be at least one piece of the treatment that may include other interventions).
You wouldn’t try to drive cross-country in a faulty vehicle, would you? Of course not. You’d fix the car first so it can carry you to your goals. Our bodies are just like the car- take care of it, and it will take care of you! Now, illness is not always a failure on our part to take care of ourselves properly. Even healthy people get sick. You might have a genetic condition, like me, or pick up an infection somewhere. Debilitating conditions like depression can impact anyone. My point is this: give your body the best possible fuel so that it can better handle the stress of illness when the need arises.
I would propose that good nutrition is also satisfying to achieve- it makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Ever experienced the joy of crossing an item off your to-do list? The satisfaction of cleaning a messy room? The instant relief when you address something that’s been eating at your mind? All of these things cause a surge of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the chemical responsible for feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction. Eating well is something you can be proud of, and that will keep you mentally feelin' good. Have you ever set a nutrition goal for yourself and stuck to it, even for just a day or two? How did it make you feel? I’d guess you felt pretty darn good. Taking care of your body fosters a sense of pride and confidence, and that carries over into everything else you do.
Food can also provide comfort, which is linked to our emotional health. In times of crisis, we instinctively turn to certain foods. Chicken noodle soup when we have a cold, tea when we want to be soothed, warm foods in the dead of winter. We prepare foods that are part of family traditions, or which remind us of loved ones, or to commemorate special occasions. Comfort foods are often linked to some memory, even if you can’t recall exactly which one. Consuming these foods can bring on warm thoughts.
Taking care of your body sets you up for other healthy habits, too. When you’re feeling energized and well-fueled, you might feel more motivated to exercise or to pick up an old hobby (or try something totally new). You might find you can better practice those feel-good emotions: gratitude, optimism, and appreciation. Studies show that these practices can actually make you happier! If your body has the tools it needs to feel motivated and capable, you will do more and reap those extra benefits.
Good nutrition nourishes you- body, mind, and spirit. It supports you so you can do incredible things (or even not-so-incredible ones- you don’t have to conquer the world!). I believe that good nutrition can support you as you build a happy, healthy life for yourself. Now, isn’t that worth an apple or two?