In the early days of positive psychology, there was a ‘neck up’ approach; how to be happy, how to live well, how to be ‘positive’. One of the ground-breaking pioneers in promoting a more holistic approach was Kate Heffron (Heffron, 2013) who started to consider the importance of the body in optimal functioning. This article is about food and ways in which it can help us flourish or live well.
I must confess a personal interest in the subject matter here – I am a foodie. By that I mean, I am passionate about food. On my last count, I owned 76 books on the subject. I like growing food, cooking food, shopping for food, eating food, photographing food, sharing food with others and going out for food. I think you might have got the idea here.
Food for Good Health – it’s important but doesn’t need to be complicated
The importance of food in health is increasingly the subject of public discussion. A study published in the Lancet in 2015 advocated the recognition of diet and nutrition as central determinants of mental and physical health.
Essentially, our bodies need to work properly for us to function well and what we feed our bodies will be of primary importance – it is more significant, more fundamental than other measures such as journal writing or other similar measures when it comes to our optimal functioning. (Heffron, 2013), Good nutrition can significantly reduce the risk of a wide range of illnesses.
Sugar has been identified as one of the bad guys in the quest for a healthy mind and body. While sugar has long formed part of our diet, it is the rise in its use in processed food that has lead to a massive increase in sugar consumption. This is bad news for our brains as sugar has been found to shrink areas of it as explained in this video here.
Sugar is addictive and is found all over the place: glucose, fructose, maltose, lactose, dextrose – to name but a few that you will find added to products that are not obviously ‘sugary’ such as tomato sauce, pasta sauces, curries and the majority of processed foods. As sugar dips follow sugar highs, attention span, concentration and mood fall along with the dip. For sustained brain power, nutrient-rich foods are essential.
Diets full of whole foods have been found to predict lower levels of depression five years later. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that food influences emotional balance (Korn, 2017). There are some great books on the market on cooking for health.
Keep it Simple!
However, it really does not have to be complicated. In his best-selling book ‘In Defence of Food’, Michael Pollan begins his ‘Eater’s Manifesto’ with summing up the advice in his book
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
That really is how simple it is – maybe we should add the word ‘real’ meaning not processed. In Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s well-researched book ‘The 4 Pillar Plan’ advising us how to relax, eat, move and sleep well, he suggests the most important dietary changes that we should all make are to de-normalize sugar, to eat a wide range of fresh vegetables and fruit – aiming for a rainbow of colour each day, to eat your food within a twelve hour period (therefore creating ‘micro fasts) and to drink more water.
“The foundation for your health journey starts on your plate and it’s more powerful than any pill I can prescribe………Rather than focusing on ridding myself of a condition, I had concentrated my efforts on providing my body with the best environment I could. I worked at being well in mind and body as much as possible” – Dr Rupy Aujla explains in his book The Doctor’s Kitchen (Aujla, 2017). Positive eating sits so well and is so important to positive psychology.
Cook and Eat Mindfully
While a balanced nutritional diet is key for optimal brain and body functioning – it is not possible to thrive without it, I would also make this plea: enjoy it! The variety of meals that can be made, the senses that can be stimulated through use of spices, herbs, a variety of wonderful vegetables, the richness of textures, flavours, smells and sights involved in real food are amazing. Cooking mindfully is not a chore or something that we don’t have time for, it is a daily opportunity for mindful ritual. In paying more attention to our food, in eating mindfully, one needs to slow down. If you do that, you are likely to notice when you are full and not overeat. You are also more likely to chew your food properly rather than bolting it down which aids your digestive system. The food industry told us we are all too busy to cook – but whose interests does that serve? I suggest, perhaps not yours!
Food and Flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the concept of ‘flow’ as being one in which people experience total absorption in what they are doing such that they would be unaware of the time passing. This, he suggests, is a state in which one can experience happiness. The state of flow can be achieved when utterly absorbed in researching, preparing and creating recipes, the pleasure from sharing a good meal with friends or family, the mindful practice of observing the senses whilst cooking, the altruism and ensuing benefits in being able to cook and share with others who may need nourishing. It is a far cry from fast food hastily consumed at a desk while reading emails or scoffed in the car on the way to an appointment.
And finally, you can find a recipe for Happiness Soup here. Bon appetite.
Aujla, R. (2017). The Doctor’s Kitchen. London: Harper Collins.
Chatterjee, R. (2018). The 4 Pillar Plan. London : Penguin Random House.
Heffron, K. (2013). Positive Psychology and the Body The Somatopsychic Side to Flourishing. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Korn, L. (2017). The Good Mood Kitchen. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
(The NHS provide a free, downloadable ‘Eat Well’ guide with the latest guidance on how to eat well but it really can be summed up as simply as Pollan put it.)
About the author: Nicola Morgan is a MAPP student, positive psychology coach, tutor and nutrition adviser. learntothrive.co.uk
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