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Illustrations by Asia Pietrzyk.
Hi, I’m Mary Beth and I’m exhausted by the news.
I’m also an emotional eater. This isn’t that much of a confession, because I believe that all eating is emotional eating. Recently, I’ve embraced and honored that how I feel affects how I eat, and how I eat affects how I feel. But that is a potential problem given that, with climate change and politics and virus outbreak and locust swarms (locusts!) in East Africa, in many ways it feels like the world is falling apart — and personal concerns in our individual lives only add to the stress.
As the editor of food videos at The Washington Post, I have a front-row seat to my colleagues’ work in the newsroom. Mine is not a breaking-news beat, but I choose to stay informed. Our world needs informed citizens now more than ever. We are living history. That said, I’d welcome a little less history.
Although I pay attention to a wide variety of news, I primarily see the world through a food lens. Food, to me, is an opportunity to achieve both immediate and long-term pleasure. Eating in pursuit of good feelings — and in response to negative ones — isn’t a character flaw, it’s a part of our shared humanity. (“The more we resist something, the more it persists,” life coach Martha Beck recently told me. She’s Oprah Winfrey’s life coach, by the way.) I accept the reality and power of emotional eating and no longer resist it. Instead, I’ve decided to focus on a question that can actually lead to progress: How can I better use food to my mental-health advantage, to calm my case of the 2020s? I want to be informed, but I also want to be sane, and the world isn’t making that particularly easy right now.
This concept is mostly interpreted as tailoring your diet to boost physical health (cholesterol, blood sugar, etc.). But I’m specifically interested in mental health, so I started looking up studies that show how food affects mood.
Here’s what I found: Research is ongoing but leans toward a microbiome-body connection. Trying to locate the microbiome is like being in Oxford, England, and asking where the university is. You’re in it, it’s all around you, and there is more of it than you can see in one glance. Your microbiome is the collection of all microbes inside of and on you — bacteria, virus, fungi, etc. There is significant evidence that the microbiome affects mental health. Eating both probiotics (living microorganisms in foods like pickles and yogurt) and prebiotics (which nurture the good microorganisms you already have and are found in foods such as barley and garlic) support a healthy microbiome. Food is way more than a sum of its nutrients, but the nutrients are an important part of the story.
Drawing from research, I’ve started eating based on the four fundamental human emotions: sad, glad, mad and afraid. (As with everything in science, there is debate: Is it five emotions? Six? Eight? For the sake of my project, I started small.) Because we can experience combinations of these basic emotions, I usually went with my dominant one.
Here are the short recipes I’ve found helpful for the four basic emotions.
A friend once described his mental state as “looking for the happiness needle in a sad haystack.” Small, simple projects (like cooking) can help with sadness by offering us a sense of accomplishment from creating something. It’s also totally human if you choose to turn to your favorite takeout place. You can do that and make soup. Because soup rules. And pretty much any vegetable is going to support your mental health.
Instructions: In a large pot over medium heat, combine 1 tbsp. olive oil, ¼ cup each chopped onions and chopped celery, and about 2 cups of any chopped vegetable (broccoli, butternut squash, cauliflower, go crazy — or combine two vegetables). Cover with broth or water, add salt and pepper, and simmer uncovered until the chopped vegetables can be easily pierced with a fork (err on the crunchy side). Puree in a blender, taste to adjust seasonings to your liking, and serve. Top it with whatever you want: crème fraiche, bacon bits, croutons, fried onions.
Look, life throws a lot of stuff at you. You need to celebrate when things are good, with as many people as possible. Hummus is eminently shareable. Some regions have hummus restaurants called hummuserias that show off its versatility: for breakfast on toast or under eggs, for lunch as the foundation of a bowl or the base of a creamy salad dressing. Chickpeas are a legume with choline, an essential nutrient that supports your brain and mood. (Although this hasn’t exactly been studied, I believe a glass of champagne is good for you, too.)
Instructions: In a food processor, combine a 15 ½ oz. can of drained chickpeas, ½ cup tahini, 2 tbsp. lemon juice, one fat garlic clove, 2 tbsp. olive oil and ½ tsp. salt. Pulse until your desired consistency. (Some like it chunky, some like it smooth — just make sure everything is combined or you’ll bite into a random, huge chunk of garlic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Serve in bowls with different toppings (chopped sun-dried tomatoes, different olive oils, fresh chickpeas, sriracha, more chopped garlic) and you’ve got a hummus party.
Almost any activity that safely engages angry energy will help you cope, but this is my favorite. Smashed cucumber salad has soluble fiber and high water content, which nourish your body. It’s also all over restaurant menus, so you can tell your friends you’re not making this up.
Instructions: Put a whole cucumber in a large Ziploc bag, and smash it with a rolling pin until it’s flat. Do this with as many cucumbers as necessary. Take the flattened cucumber out of the bag, break it up some more with your hands to make bite-size pieces, and toss with dressing. I recommend something with garlic (which is a good source of prebiotics).
Sometimes the world seems as if it’s doing everything it can to rock our sense of security. Remember, you can’t be brave without being afraid, and I promise, just about everyone around you is more scared and anxious right now than they have been in the past. When I get afraid, I hoard food. This is what my refrigerator looks like:
Blueberry crisp will emotionally support you as you rise to the challenge of your life — and it will give you an excuse to stay home if you just need a minute. You can’t leave with the oven on, but you can invite other people over to experience your home as a place that smells like good things are happening. It’s weirdly satisfying to put your fingers right in the topping to pinch it together. And it’s versatile — you can use any berry on the bottom (blueberries get a lot of great press about antioxidants, but really all berries are good) and add nuts or spices to the topping, which is basically a big oatmeal cookie. (But I should warn you, I once told people in a work meeting that I like raisins in oatmeal cookies and I thought I would get fired. Do as you like.)
Instructions: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine 2/3 cup whole wheat flour, 1 ½ cup rolled oats, ½ cup honey, ½ tsp. salt, 1 tsp. cinnamon, and 6 tbsp. softened unsalted butter (cut in pieces) in a bowl. You can combine with your fingers or pulse it in a food processor until crumbly. Place 3 cups berries in a baking dish and cover it with the oat mixture. Bake for about 30 minutes or until bubbly and brown.
Science doesn’t suggest (and I don’t believe) that eating is a cure-all — I had seen a therapist for most of my adult life, until my favorite one died unexpectedly, which is a whole other story. Still, what we eat matters, and it plays a part in our mental wellness.
Beyond my project, there’s a whole burgeoning field dedicated to the food-mood connection. It’s called nutritional psychiatry. Some medical schools have started culinary medicine programs (they didn’t even teach nutrition decades ago). My mentor, the late surgeon general C. Everett Koop, was one of the first in recent history to recommend that doctors write prescriptions for food. (And he drank a gin martini every night.) Now patients can get food prescriptions filled in a pilot program at Kroger; the supermarket chain hopes to fill more food prescriptions than medicine prescriptions someday.
Regardless of your mood, here’s a final bit of food for thought: I highly recommend eating with other people at least two times each day. Even if it’s just a snack. For an entire month, I ate only with other people, never alone, because that’s what we’ve done for most of human history. It was a way to support my mood, and guess what? It was both challenging and rewarding. Just like humans’ relationship with food.