Mental illnesses and disorders are on a rise, and like 18 million other Americans, I also suffer from anxiety.
Anxiety and Unhealthy Eating Habits
I first started experiencing symptoms while I was still in college. My anxiety was a direct result of academic pressure and poor health habits. When you’re in your 20’s, you feel invincible. You think excessive amounts of alcohol, McDonald’s and Papa John’s can’t take a toll on your health… until it does.
The first time I had a panic attack, I thought my heart was failing. The symptoms were quite similar to a heart attack: chest pain, quickened heartbeat, numbness and tingling in arms and legs. I even checked myself into a hospital to find out what was wrong with me. But after spending a large fortune on numerous EKGs, I found out that my heart was completely fine. But what I wasn’t told was that my mental health wasn’t.
Come to think of it, we always blame stress and other external factors for our anxiety. And while they do affect our mental health to a great extent, we often tend to ignore the role of diet and lifestyle on our overall happiness. In college, I was living on fried eggs, bacon and hash browns for breakfast. Lunch would be an equally unhealthy affair with something out of the snack dispenser. Cheesy chips and pretzels were my go-to snacks to munch on while cramming for a big test.
When cravings would strike late at night, I would find myself ordering pizza or pulling up at McDonald’s drive-thru to grab an order of Big Mac and large French fries. Food would make me happy temporarily, but this feeling of euphoria wore off very quickly. I thought I was happy living on sour patch kids and sugary colas, when honestly, looking back at that time now, I was probably at my lowest point in life.
Why Quality of Food Matters
College ended but my unhealthy eating habits didn’t. I moved back home and started working a stressful 9-to-5 corporate job. I would often start my day without breakfast and have a big unhealthy lunch instead. Dinner was usually takeout from my favorite Chinese restaurant. I was still drinking pretty much every weekend and not working out at all.
My diet was making me really unhappy and even more stressed out, especially as I started to put on weight in my late 20s. I tried all kinds of diets – low fat, low carb, sugar-free, gluten free – you name it. I started getting into the habit of undereating at one point, eating no more than 1000 calories a day.
While I lost 20 pounds by starving myself for months, I still wasn’t happy with myself. On the contrary, counting calories, restricting myself constantly and worrying about my weight was making me more anxious and stressed out. I went from not caring about what I ate to suddenly being too scared to eat.
All I knew about health until that point was that I had to consume less calories than I burned. What I didn’t care about was the quality of the food I was putting inside my body. While low-fat cream cheese sandwiches were keeping me thin, they were hardly adding any nutritional value to my diet.
As work stress piled on, I started becoming more antisocial. I hardly ever wanted to meet my friends or go out anymore. When my best friend became concerned about my health, she staged a life-changing intervention that helped me see that my diet and unhealthy lifestyle were only contributing to my anxiety. Having realized what I was doing to my body, I had somewhat of a meltdown.
A Much-Needed Change
That night was when I decided that something needed to change. I sat down with a qualified nutritionist who helped me see what I was doing wrong in my diet. She helped me move away from the ‘calories in vs. calories out’ mentality, and focus on adding quality whole foods to my diet instead. Suddenly I was making more frequent trips to the farmer’s market than the local pizzeria.
I immersed myself into healthy eating and I was starting to enjoy the process of preparing my own meals at home. Being aware of the foods I was eating started improving my mood. I found myself happier when I was fully satisfied after eating a nutritious meal.
I was no longer hungry, cranky or worried about calories. Preparing meals with your own hands has proven therapeutic benefits that can really someone who has anxiety. I started to see how my mental health was deeply connected with my body and how I treated it.
Today I can say without a doubt that nutrition has saved my life in ways one cannot even fathom. I have developed a deep connection and respect for my body which helps me make healthier food and lifestyle choices every day. By taking care of my nutrition, I feel powerful and in control of my mental and physical health.
Food hasn’t cured my anxiety completely, and as someone who is prone to stress, I’ll always have moments of anxiousness. But taking care of nutrition and health has made me whole again, and I can say without I doubt that I am happier than I have ever been in my life.