Food and Mental Health

May is recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month. Food plays a vital role in one’s mental health. At Food for Others, we see firsthand how access to nutritious and culturally diverse food can impact mental health. 

According to a recent study, “the importance of food security as a health predictor often outweighs the impact of money”. This powerful statement highlights the importance of food to our wellbeing. The mental health of low-income adults with high food security is compared to low-income adults with very low food security (food insecurity). The former screened at 14.3% for depression and 20.5% for anxiety. Individuals experiencing significant food insecurity screened at 54.9% for depression and 58.9% for anxiety.  

The difference between these numbers is staggering – it highlights the importance of food to an individual’s wellbeing. Food provides each of us with energy, improves our ability to focus, helps us heal, and allows us to remain strong and healthy. Without enough food, our bodies struggle to keep up with everyday life. Beyond the tangible impacts of food on our health, food brings together community and connects us with our cultures – becoming a significant piece of our individual identity. 

New research is emerging about the importance of food to our mental health – especially relating to the gut-brain axis, or the series of nerves that connect your gut and your brain. It is well established that certain nutrients are required for us to thrive – the absence of vitamin B12, Zinc, etc., have been proven to cause cognitive decline, decrease moods, and increase symptoms of depression. The brain requires a lot of nutrition – it uses about 20% of an individual’s daily caloric intake! Serotonin is primarily produced in the gut – studies show an off-balance gut microbiome reduces your body’s ability to produce serotonin. Maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria, of which there are trillions, is crucial to supporting your mental health. This takes you are what you eat to a new level! 

Food quality and quantity have an undeniable impact on our mental and physical health – yet 44 million people in the United States are food insecure. The relationship between mental health and food shows that hunger is not an isolated issue – individuals who are food insecure could also be struggling with their health, employment, finances, childcare, and so much more. Connecting with organizations like Food for Others, which offers opportunities for connections with wraparound service providers, supports the overall wellbeing of individuals who are struggling. 

Solving the issue of hunger in the United States can feel like a huge undertaking – harming your mental health as you search for ways to end hunger. Every single action you take makes a difference. Advocate for your neighbors and spread awareness about hunger – whether on a local, state, or federal level. Programs like SNAP, which is federally funded, are associated with a 38% decrease in an individual’s psychological distress. Donate your time and/or money to organizations that combat hunger. Giving back to your community is proven to have a positive impact on your mental health as well!