Diet and Depression II: Mental Blocks to Healthy Eating

As I stated in “Diet and Depression I”, making changes to your diet can have a positive impact in easing depression. Depression is a mental disorder, but it’s also largely a matter of neurochemistry. What you choose to put into your body affects that neurochemistry, for good or ill.

For many people, eating healthier is a very difficult change to make. It has been very difficult for me, at least.

One difficulty is the bewildering array of nutritional advice and fad diets out there. I have tried to keep it simple and stick to a few basic principles: (1) cut back on fast food, (2) cut back on junk food, (3) add more fruits and vegetables. That’s hard enough, and it doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.

Another problem: indulging in comfort food is a prime coping mechanism for many depression sufferers, including me. Salty snacks are my vice. Sacrificing an effective short-term source of relief for a less tangible long-term benefit is never easy. The idea of giving up junk food, fast food, comfort food may feel like giving up simple pleasures that help you through depression.

Part of my resistance has been sheer “don’t tell me what to do!” orneriness. When well-meaning people or public service announcements tell me to eat healthy, I feel an overwhelming urge to grab the biggest bag of Doritos they make. Preaching and nagging, whether from others or from yourself, rarely work.

Here’s what works for me:

Don’t think of eating healthier as something you “should” do. Don’t think of it as deprivation or sacrifice. Think of it as taking action against your depression, taking control of your destiny. Think of it as embracing your inner strength and power to tranform yourself, which that negative depression voice is constantly telling you you don’t have.

Another useful principle: try to make healthy eating as easy and convenient as possible. In his latest book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams writes:

One of the biggest barriers to healthy eating is the inconvenience factor. Life is so busy for most of us that convenience trumps most other considerations. We do what’s easiest even if we know it shortens our lives. What you want is for healthy food to be more convenient than unhealthy food.

For me that means keeping the kitchen stocked with fruits, vegetables, juices, nuts, protein bars and other healthy foods I like, things I can grab quickly with minimal preparation required. It means cooking healthy meals in large batches so there will be plenty of leftovers. I work from home, which makes this process easier for me. If you spend long hours at an office or on the road, you might find this more difficult. But the basic principle still applies: make the healthy option as convenient as possible, so you don’t have to expend willpower or extra effort each time.

I have also tried to turn healthy cooking and eating into a series of small hobbies or projects. I bought a good blender and started making fruit smoothies, experimenting with different combinations. I’ve made my own snack mixes with peanuts, raisins, mixed nuts, dried edamame, pumpkin seeds, etc, as a way of weaning myself off Doritos, Cheetos, potato chips and Chex mix. I’m working my way through every flavor of Quest Bar and ranking them in my mind. The general idea is to make healthy eating less something you “should” do and more something you can take pleasure in.

One final tip: don’t beat yourself when you give into temptation now and then. You’re only human.

Have you tried making changes in your diet to fight depression? What works for you?

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