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Eat Your Way to Emotional Wellness

Good food is essential to mental health in college and beyond.

Key points

  • The rate of eating disorders in university students has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Eating the Mediterranean diet is associated with lower levels of depression.
  • Consuming a healthy breakfast, eating socially, and eating mindfully can improve mental health.

I recently watched a wonderful Netflix documentary series, Secrets of the Blue Zones, about regions of the world where an unusually high number of people live healthy and productive lives for one hundred years and beyond. The series looks at longevity factors such as food, social networks, exercise, purpose, and spirituality. Regarding food, meals are often eaten communally and joyfully; people may grow their own food; and diets include more vegetarian rather than meat-based options with beans or legumes as staples.

I’ve recently considered the importance of food in mental health since the COVID-19 pandemic, as I’ve seen a growing number of students in my college clinic with eating disorders or irregular eating in general. We’ve heard of eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. However, there are eating disorders that don’t fall into a specific category but can still be problematic, as eating behavior that has an impact on functioning or causes great distress.

I’ve seen students go through extreme weight loss, sometimes going days without eating and losing several pounds rapidly; their weight may still be in a normal range, but they lack energy and have trouble concentrating. Some students do not eat until the evening and experience increasing anxiety throughout the day. Here is the problem: They are not eating enough nutrients or eating regularly enough to sustain attention and feel good.

My observation of increased rates of eating disorders is backed up by data from before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The Healthy Minds Study showed a 40 percent increase in students screening positive for a likely eating disorder, with 14 percent of students screening positive in 2022-2023 versus 10 percent of students in 2018-2019. The number of students reporting being diagnosed with an eating disorder (such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating) has nearly doubled, according to the National College Health Assessment, with 6.9 percent of students diagnosed in the spring of 2023 versus 3.6 percent of students in the fall of 2019.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic cause these increases in disordered eating? We can’t really say, but students did undergo severe isolation at the height of the pandemic when there was less going out and communal eating in general. My patients report social isolation was the worst part of their COVID-19 experience. Additionally, we all felt some loss of control during the pandemic, and often, eating disorders develop to gain a sense of control.

Best Eating Practices for College Students

With rates of dysfunctional eating growing, where do we go from here in helping our college students develop eating habits that will promote mental health?

1. Eat a healthy breakfast. A study of high school students demonstrated a decreased perception of stress and a better quality of life in those who ate breakfast than in those who did not. In addition, eating a good-quality breakfast resulted in less depression than eating a poor-quality breakfast. Eating breakfast is also associated with less obesity. Always encourage students to eat a high-quality breakfast.

2. Follow the Mediterranean diet. What is a high-quality breakfast or high-quality meal in general? One great way of eating is the Mediterranean-style diet, which has been found to be associated with lower rates of depression. The Mediterranean diet consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, olive oil, nuts, fish, some milk products, and lean meats.

3. Eat socially. Dining with family and friends is a part of the Mediterranean diet and may play a role in the cardiovascular and psychological benefits we see. One study showed those who ate more meals with other people had greater levels of happiness. Encourage your child to eat meals with friends in the campus dining hall on a regular basis or plan dinner with friends on the weekend.

4. Eat mindfully. Mindful eating can be done with others or alone. It involves the practice of being emotionally present when you are eating, not rushing through the meal by eating quickly or taking large bites of food. Rather, you eat slowly and savor the food while feeling gratitude for the processes that led to your meal or the people you are dining with.

5. Most importantly, eat joyfully. If we can sprinkle a bit of the French “joie to vivre” into our dining experience, our general well-being could improve.

For students with more significant struggles with eating, like anorexia or bulimia, call the campus counseling center and student health care center to learn what resources are available to help. Eating disorder providers may include a therapist, nutritionist, psychiatric provider, and primary care provider.

Eating healthfully, mindfully, and socially are important habits that contribute to good mental well-being and a high quality of life over the long term. Encourage your child and family to eat their way to mental health!

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