It’s a new year, and we are told by the media that it is time for a New You. Someone who is better, wiser and – most insistently – thinner.
Publishers traditionally pump out January diet books urging self-restraint after the season of mince pies and merrymaking. But this time I am not mournfully spearing a mouthful of kale after too much Christmas pudding. Being “lean in 15” is not for me, nor do I practise “clean eating”. In short, diets are not my thing.
May I suggest my alternative approach this New Year, rooted both in science as well as age-old Christian wisdom? Try eating with your mood, rather than your waistline, in mind.
First, the science. For the past six years my daily fare has been a key tool in my battle to stay calm and well after a long struggle with anxiety and depression for which I have spent time in hospital.
I might never have become interested in the relationship between food and mood had my GP not mentioned the topic at the end of a routine appointment nearly six years ago to discuss my ongoing battle with anxiety and low mood. As I was leaving, she asked if I had heard of “happy foods”? Oily fish and dark green fibrous vegetables, in particular. And dark chocolate.
I was intrigued. Further research revealed that there is growing evidence that some forms of depression and mood imbalance may be linked to low-grade, chronic inflammation in the body. Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet can help improve our mood.
There were four main aspects of my new anti-inflammatory, mood-boosting diet. The first was to eat more vegetables; the second to eat more fish; the third to eat more fermented and gut-loving foods; and finally to avoid foods which would exacerbate inflammation.
Alongside changing what I ate, I also changed how I ate. I returned to an aspect of my Catholic upbringing, but one that I had long forgotten: to pause, take a breath, and say grace before meals, even if it is just to myself and under my breath.
The advantage of this simple change is psychological: I have become more thankful for what I am about to receive. Our meals are something to be savoured and for which we can be appreciative to God.
Science dovetails with ancient truths: plenty of psychological studies confirm the power of adopting a more grateful attitude. In a similar way, cooking too can become a time to appreciate all the food we can otherwise take for granted. Standing still at the stove can allow time for reflection and reawaken our jaded senses, connecting us both to nature’s bounty and our spirituality.
The hiss of peppers sizzling in a pan, the scent of ginger and garlic, the sight of rich reds and yellows: all this can gladden our souls and redefine how we think about food in a positive way at what can otherwise feel like a judgmental, negative time of year.
There may even be some evidence that cultivating this sort of appreciative, happy kitchen can help us live longer. For years, scientists have pondered the so-called “French paradox”. Why is the mortality rate from heart disease in France less than a third of that in Britain? Why do the French on average live four years longer than Americans, despite eating, on average, more saturated fat?
One explanation could be that the French enjoyment of cooking and food and a culture that celebrates eating slowly, surrounded by family, has a positive effect on their mood.
Another advantage of saying grace is more practical. The pause required is a reminder to eat more slowly. Like so many of us, I used to bolt down my food and treat mealtimes as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I would eat with the fridge door gaping, on the move, or al desko.
Science once again is at one with spiritual wisdom. Our digestive system expects us to chew and swallow our food properly, as this gives our stomach time to prepare the right digestive juices. Up to 40 chews is thought to be about the right number for tough meat and vegetables.
Yet the reduction in the size of the average human jaw over the course of human evolution and the prevalence of compacted wisdom teeth could be a sign of how rarely we now use our chewing powers. Eating in his way also helps us eat more slowly and reminds us that food is not just fuel to be consumed mindlessly. Rather, eating with focus means we tend to consume what we naturally need, rather than over-eat.
So ditch the diets. If you must make a nutritional New Year’s resolution, let it be to resume saying grace. You might just become the kind of new you for which you are truly thankful.
Rachel Kelly is a writer, mental health campaigner and an ambassador for SANE. Her books include The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food (Short Books)