Food, social and mental health?

It’s only recently we’ve become slightly obsessed with the way we eat, or at least the way we want people to perceive we eat. Not only is the food itself given a name, but we have also taken to naming the way we are consuming it. Yet are we just re-creating what we already have but with a different label?

It was late last year when I visited Vietnam that really inspired me to think about how their food culture and our food culture are on one hand quite similar, yet on the other worlds apart. The food there is exciting, yet intrinsically so simple. From fragrant pho you can find nationwide to bullish bun cha in Hanoi and western influenced banh mi in Saigon there is no lack of choice. Vegetables are part and parcel of almost every dish, in fact what the Vietnamese refer to as their national vegetable, morning glory (water spinach, which is actually found throughout South East Asia) signifies just how nutritious their food is. A long green vegetable, its packed with fibre, vitamin C and antioxidants and is most commonly cooked and served with garlic. I’m not going to deny Vietnam does offer your fair share of fried options, from seafood to spring rolls and everything in between however, part of me can’t help but think the popularity of these may have shot to fame from western influence.

Coming back to the UK, food and fitness have recently taken over on social media, written media and are a topic of many conversations. It seems we are trying so hard to achieve balance, the perfect plate, the most sought after fitness wear and glowing skin to which I pose the question, is social media responsible for this? And elsewhere on earth is balance achieved – minus the social influence? We seem to be striving for all the food the Vietnamese have as part of their day to day life. As a leading example, the Vietnamese actively adopt a gluten free diet as most of the food in Vietnam is naturally gluten free, it’s also predominately dairy free. 

Clean eating has become a buzz word and quite recently was put through its paces by Giles Yeo on a horizon documentary, it’s worth a watch when you can spare an hour. We need food – fact. What we don’t need is all the added pressure that somehow seems to go with it these days. Gluten free, dairy free, vegan, grain free, paleo, carb cycling, low carb, low fat, high fat, alkaline. I really just wish people would eat food, as it is. Clean eating is now another fad, with no formal definition it depends on who you follow as to what rules you adopt. Everything from only eating organic (which by the way has no evidence to suggest it’s better for human health) to cutting the carbs, no caffeine and going raw. This has all gained momentum, driven primarily by social media and its followers. It’s so prominent now we have started making naturally gluten containing foods, gluten free. Take gluten free bread as an example, if you haven’t tried it please do, it’s double the price and nothing like bread. As a nutritionist I understand the complexities of not being able to consume gluten but I can assure you many of the people buying this are buying it because its “gluten free” not because they are a Coeliac, if you get my drift. The Italians have been eating gluten for thousands of years and Sardinia has one of the longest life expectancies in the world, food for thought right there. So rather than trying to manufacture products to take the gluten out why aren’t we enjoying the vast array of foods that are naturally gluten free. The list is endless.

One of the latest crazes (also driven by social media) is symmetry breakfast! Yes you read that right symmetry breakfast. Where someone takes a photo of two identical breakfasts and posts it on social media.

Call me old fashioned (and I will admit I do love a food photo every now and again) but my plate would be half eaten by the time someone tried to make it symmetrical and photograph it, let’s not forget it would also be cold.

Those of you who know me will be well versed in the moderation argument. And without trying to stifle creativity or lose focus on food, it really is that simple. And this moderation idea, it also comes down to social media too. The University of Pittsburg, School of Medicine recently reported that frequent users of social media are three times more likely to develop mental health problems. Whether directly involved with food or not, as employers we need to stop, take stock of all the above, and work on long term strategies to help our people be well and perform at their best, because it’s clear that the way we are currently doing things, isn’t working. More people are burnt out and suffering with stress than we’ve seen in the past and it’s all linked, food, exercise, technology, happiness and work. We also need to learn from others, like France who are giving employees the right to disconnect from work. We need to assist our people to disconnect from their devices, focus on something they love, perhaps cooking or walking which will not only benefit them physically but more so emotionally and they’ll be much more productive in the long term at work too. It’s a difficult one to compute really because we all know it’s the right thing to do, yet the fear of being disconnected sometimes overrides what we know is better for us emotionally and mentally. But these positive effects are quite hard for an individual to see. I liken it to smoking cigarettes, it’s an addiction, it makes you feel good for a short while and you cannot see the long effects its having on you.

I couldn’t conclude my argument without mentioning that in some ways social media can be positive, particularly for small businesses trying to get their foot in the door and gain some traction. And let’s not forget education, we can learn a lot from others as well as keep up to date with current affairs and stay in touch with long distance friends and family, however we all need to take a little bit more responsibility for what we post and the implications that can have on others. It’s certainly something I’ve been more conscious of recently.