Most of the women I know will tell me that food impacts their emotions. Certainly, more women than men talk about, and admit to “emotional eating.” There’s even a portion of the field of Cognitive Behavior Therapy devoted to uncovering the causes of and treatments for emotional eating.
Food has a powerful impact on emotional well-being. I coach my clients to be mindful of the foods they choose and how they effect them. When under stress, for example, I ask my clients to take note of foods that seem attractive to them while hungry and which ones seem attractive when they are desiring a snack at odd times.
The answers to these questions can help us understand how emotion impacts our hunger, satiety and desire for specific foods. In general, my clients who are more successful at including a broad variety of foods into their eating plans seem to fare better emotionally than those who are habitual about foods or have a narrow palate.
Certainly, a few people feel less stressed or worried about diet and food when they eat a narrow variety. These folks seem to be more concerned with a specific nutrition-related outcome – a weight loss target or physique goal, for example – then they are about the emotional aspect of food and diet.
The goal outweighs the complexity of the issue for these people, apparently.
I’ve always observed, anecdotally, that women seem to be more impacted by the quality, availability and variety of foods they can eat within their nutritional parameters than men. Not better, necessarily, nor worse, just more so.
Now, a study from the State University of New York at Binghampton would seem to back up my observations.
Lina Begdache, an Assistant Professor of Health and Wellness Studies, led the study into the role of dietary patterns in gender-specific psychological well-being. While it was a self-reported survey study using cross-gender questioning, it still sheds light on the mounting evidence that suggests that there are functional and anatomical differences in men’s and women’s brains which may govern their relative susceptibility to mental illness or disorders. Every effort to understand the role of diet in mental health and well-being is a welcome one, in my opinion.
563 participants (48% men, 52% women) returned anonymous surveys investigating the issue.
The resulting conclusion? Women more likely need a varied and nutrient-rich diet to support their positive emotional and psychological well-being.
Begdache and her team found an interesting dichotomy. Men are more likely to experience mental well-being until nutritional deficiencies occur. Women, on the other hand are less likely to experience mental well-being unless a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle are being followed.
Begdache believes the results may explain previous study findings that reveal women are at a greater risk of mental distress when compared to men, and that the role of a nutrient-dense diet may be crucial to their mental well-being.
Begdache said, “The biggest takeaway is that women need a larger spectrum of nutrients to support mood, compared to men. These findings may explain the reason why women are twice more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression and suffer from longer episodes, compared to men. Today’s diet is high in energy but poor in key nutrients that support brain anatomy and functionality.”
There has been ample evidence from scientific, archeological and historical research to support the idea that our ancestors ate a diet that was both high-energy and nutrient-dense. Well, at least those ancestors who had access to fruits, vegetables and grains.
One issue that may be part of the equation is the declining nutrient value of industrially-produced food, particularly in the US. Bio-assays performed on vegetable, fruit and grain crops from large-scale industrial and corporate farms in recent years has revealed lower concentrations of vitamins, minerals and other key micro-nutrients. Soil quality testing also points to a consistent decline in nutrient quality and density among large-scale farm operations.
Organic and pastoral farms, on the other hand, seem to holding steady or improving, based on soil assays and bio-assays of harvested crops. This may point to one part of a solution for the problem highlighted by this study.
Ancestral diets, with their high levels of both energy and nutrients, contributed significantly to increases in brain volume during our evolution and to the cognitive evolution of mankind, according to Begdache.
“Males and females had different physical and emotional responsibilities that may have necessitated different energy requirements and food preference,” she says. “Thus, gender-based differential food and energy intake may explain the differential brain volumes and connectivity between females and males. Therefore, a potential mismatch is happening between our contemporary diet and the evolved brain which is disturbing the normal functionality of certain systems in the brain.”
Another question which has significance here is the following. What is the role of processed food in this equation? Could there be a difference in how the body, particularly the brain, recognizes and processes nutrients produced artificially versus those which are naturally occurring in a healthy cultivation process?
In all cases, it seems a return to a way of eating that provides variety, energy, nutrient-density and a closer association with the earth in the production of our food will be beneficial to all of us. In this case, especially women!
Let’s hope we can figure this question out before more than half our population suffers the consequences.
Keep the faith and keep after it!