I was recently asked a very important question.
“What makes a person happy and does nutrition have anything to do with it?”
A mentor of mine, Dr. Gabriel Cousens (who practices holistic healthcare), has a quote that I think of often which says, “You can’t eat your way to God.” It’s true. He’s right. Some people really believe that if they can just dial in their diet, everything in life will align. It won’t.
We were created to have a relationship with God and other people, to have a mission or purpose in life, and to grow in our inner-being … and no food can do those things.
On the other hand, nutrition and an overall healthy lifestyle is paramount when it comes to happiness. I don’t know too many really happy people who are tired all the time, full of aches and pain, never sleep well, can’t do things that they love because of poor health, etc.
You could argue that junk food makes you happy. After all, it usually tastes good, is socially elevated (I’ve been made fun of many times for eating healthy but never for the opposite), and is designed to leave you wanting more (example: FritoLays potato chips slogan says, “you can’t eat just one”). Junk foods are highly addicting, which only make this situation more complicated.1 However, the entire field of orthomolecular nutrition makes it pretty clear that nutrition can play a huge role in our moods and overall disposition.2 I would call this pseudo-happiness. Junk foods have drug-like qualities and tend to leave you wanting more.3 They do indeed pick you up for the high but then drop you as you come down in a pile of pain, regret, misery, poor sleep, low energy and a lowered body image.
For my first master’s degree (in live food/vegan nutrition), I did a 4-month study on depression as my thesis. The results were incredible! I used a lower glycemic, high-raw diet with those who were suffering from mild to severe depression. Those who participated were not able to make any other changes during these 4 months in effort to keep the non-diet related variables to a minimum. (They could not start exercising, supplementing or anything else. Doing so would disqualify them for the study.) Those who finished the 4-month protocol all had over 92% improvement.4 People who previously could hardly get out of bed were getting jobs, engaging in relationships again and having a strong desire to exercise. Although that’s not the diet I currently recommend, the results were inarguable. Dietary improvements are strongly associated with mental wellness improvements.5
In working with someone who is not feeling happy, be it just general malaise or more severe/advanced depression, there are many factors that we must consider. The question comes up, for example, if someone’s marriage is falling apart, will nutrition help? I believe the answer is no… and yes. No, in the sense that they may indeed need to seek counseling to get help working through interpersonal issues. However, yes, it could potentially help in that people with better nutrition and healthy lifestyle habits are more likely to stay focused, think clearly, navigate emotions and overall do a better job of controlling their personal state of being and generally supporting their mental health.6 All of these things make them more efficient in navigating tough mental/emotional situations as well as interpersonal communication. Have you ever tried to work through a major challenge with your parents, spouse, child or boss while you’re exhausted? You’re not at your best at that point and could likely have a better result when you’re more rested and feeling nourished.
There is also the idea of having adequate emotional support, especially when food addictions are present. For many people, food has become a refuge from trouble, a socially acceptable way to cope with stress, anxiety, depression and frustration. In these cases, it’s helpful for people to have an advocate of some sort who will help them through the first few days, weeks and sometimes months of a new health program. When I did my research, the people who were able to finish the study and have the best results were for sure the ones with better support both at home and in general. When you’re sad, depressed and overwhelmed, that’s often the toughest time to make good nutritional choices…1 But that is exactly when nutrition and self care is perhaps even more important than ever.
Although there is no fast and easy answer, I believe the best approach is that of a truly holistic healthcare nature. Good nutrition including breaking addictions, eating lots of organic whole-food, understanding why water is important to life , etc., is key. However, in order to do those things, there are some non-nutritional things that can make it easier to stick with good nutrition, things like: relational support, counseling (in some cases), spiritual connection, exercise, fresh air, deep breathing, good sleep and a strong purpose in life. For some, things will fall in place quicker than others, but I have never worked with anyone who didn’t benefit from doing these things.
When I work with clients who aren’t feeling happy, there are a few things that I have found profoundly helpful:
- Organic, plant-based, whole-food nutrition5 and reducing animal products7. Again, for someone on the standard American diet, an advocate can be helpful as this is not an easy transition to make.
- Gentle light exercise, preferably outside in the sunshine.8 Pushing too hard at first can be counter productive especially if they have adrenal issues or just haven’t been exercising in the recent past.
- Supplementing with a good quality DHA9 and B Complex.10 (Good quality is key!)
- You really have to deal with emotional causes in some way or another. I personally use a process called ERT (emotional repolarization technique) or the Emotion Code, but there are lots of great ways to deal with this (PSYCH K, EMDR, etc.). Also, get counseling if/when needed.
- One final factor that helps greatly… Find a positive practitioner that you trust and will help you keep your hopes up! The confidence and hope from the right healthcare practitioner (such as myself) can work to dramatically improve your compliance and therefore improvements.11 Results are always the bottom line!
It is the truly powerful ones who are strong enough to seek help when they need it. If you have been trying to feel better for a long time and just can’t seem to get or maintain that feeling, perhaps it’s time to share the burden. I have walked many people across this bridge. It’s not easy but it is worth it. Get Healthy Now and begin your path to a healthy lifestyle today!
1. Yau YHC, Potenza MN. Stress and eating behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol. 2013.
2. Sathyanarayana Rao T, Asha M, Ramesh B, Jagannatha Rao K. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian J Psychiatry. 2008. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.42391
3. Gordon EL, Ariel-Donges AH, Bauman V, Merlo LJ. What is the evidence for “food addiction?” A systematic review. Nutrients. 2018. doi:10.3390/nu10040477
4. Fritz L. Depression Study. 2012.
5. Firth J, Marx W, Dash S, et al. The Effects of Dietary Improvement on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Psychosom Med. 2019. doi:10.1097/PSY.0000000000000673
6. Adan RAH, van der Beek EM, Buitelaar JK, et al. Nutritional psychiatry: Towards improving mental health by what you eat. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2019. doi:10.1016/j.euroneuro.2019.10.011
7. Beezhold BL, Johnston CS. Restriction of meat, fish, and poultry in omnivores improves mood: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Nutr J. 2012. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-11-9
8. Gladwell VF, Brown DK, Wood C, Sandercock GR, Barton JL. The great outdoors: How a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extrem Physiol Med. 2013. doi:10.1186/2046-7648-2-3
9. Larrieu T, Layé S. Food for mood: Relevance of nutritional omega-3 fatty acids for depression and anxiety. Front Physiol. 2018. doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.01047
10. Young LM, Pipingas A, White DJ, Gauci S, Scholey A. A systematic review and meta-analysis of b vitamin supplementation on depressive symptoms, anxiety, and stress: Effects on healthy and ‘at-risk’ individuals. Nutrients. 2019. doi:10.3390/nu11092232
11. Martin L, Williams S, Haskard K, DiMatteo R. The challenge of patient adherence. Ther Clin Risk Manag. 2005;1(3):189-199.