If you ask the internet whether coffee is healthy, you’ll find recent studies saying it both prevents and causes cancer. Paleo, vegan, vegetarian, Whole30, Keto—these are dietary philosophies that have wildly differing roots and rules, but promise the same health and happiness. With conflicting dietary advice constantly flung at us, what are we supposed to do—and think—so we can simply nourish our bodies?
It’s more important than ever to cut through the noise. Research points to the link between food and our brain chemistry, so we ought to think about how we are doing emotionally and mentally, as well as physically. We may be used to linking symptoms like stomach aches to our diets, for example, but irritation, sadness, and brain fog can likewise be connected. This is especially crucial for women: We’re biochemically a different person each day of the month, and general dietary rules touted as universally beneficial often don’t work for us.
Science: Food and you (specifically)
Studies from many different scientific disciplines demonstrate the inherent variability in our reactions to food.
Genetics shows us that many of our food preferences, intolerances, and triggers were built into us as far back as a few generations ago. One study found that up to 80 percent of the risk for food allergies or inflammatory conditions is heritable. Epigenetics, however, which studies our environment’s effect on genetic activity, is shedding light on many of the more nuanced symptoms we experience. Simply put, our individual histories and decisions have the ability to cause our DNA to work in different ways. An exposure to specific types of foods or chemicals when you were a child might have turned on the gene that causes you to react to dairy in a weird way as an adult.
Chronobiology, the study of our internal clocks and rhythms, is beginning to show us how different foods affect us over the course of the day (circadian rhythms) and over the course of the month (our menstrual cycles). For example, a huge boost of energy in the morning is great; and, for some, an easily digestible form of energy is carbohydrates. That same food, however, may be less welcome towards the end of the day, triggering the cascade of energy-boosting hormones just as our body is ready for rest. This disjunct may result in gastrointestinal distress.
If we step outside of the biological sciences, it’s clear from psychological studies that each of us have specific memories, experiences, and ways our brains are uniquely built which causes specific foods to be triggers, cravings, or rewards.
Why this matters
All of the available science is telling us that while there are certain dietary philosophies we can all stand by (more veggies is usually a good idea), we have a lot to figure out for ourselves. However, we live in a world where generalities are far easier to deal with.
For example, popular dietary advice often applies to men. The intricate hormonal dance we as women experience each day is very different than most men’s physiology, so often advice targeted to both sexes isn’t always helpful for women. Even dieting information targeted towards women can affect you very differently than another woman (as we learned above). The food industry takes roughly none of this into account in its advertising, and the social structures that we have built around food in today’s treat-yo-self culture are rarely conducive to individual happiness and growth.
We’re used to physical symptoms of eating certain types of food, but the effect some foods can have on our brains can be even more insidious. And, because we need the full use of our brains to notice trends in our own behavior, these can be difficult to diagnose. Our brains are good at getting what they want; as most of us know from experience, they tend to value instant reward over long-term results. Yet our brains are the portals through which we experience life. If certain foods are making your mind sluggish and sad, cleaning up your diet can make your brain snappier and your mood more positive, which will improve everything—including helping you make better food choices. It’s the ultimate positive feedback loop, making this both our largest asset and collective Achilles’ heel.
Consider this a call to view yourself as an experiment of one.
Some pointers for getting started
Get honest with yourself.
Are you completely happy with the way your body and brain support your life right now? Chances are high that you experience occasional slumps of energy or bouts of ennui that make it hard to thrive. Are there any symptoms that you know you’re dealing with? Whether clear (heartburn, depression, sleep issues) or subtle (unnecessarily argumentative habits, an attention span of 0.0004 seconds, or even just perpetual boredom or a lack of excitement in your day-to-day), these may be ingrained to the point of being invisible; they seem to be “just the way things are.” Because of this, try not to think, “I’m doing fine,” and move on. If you’re doing great, that’s awesome, but it’s still helpful to note what’s working well, and to look for the why.
Write down your observations, methods, and results.
An experiment is only as good as its documentation. Start at the beginning, noting anything you’re dealing with; write down any changes you’re making; and keep writing as the days go by. Often it won’t seem like anything is changing, but comparing the entries over time may reveal differences you weren’t expecting.
Do your own research.
You may take it for granted that you should avoid added sugar because the influencer du jour posted about it, but that motivation won’t last very long. Take an hour and think about your diet. What are the foods you most typically eat? How do they make you feel?
Try to start from an uninformed place. I began my food experiment as an avid Paleo supporter, but found (by way of a health scare) that excess animal protein and fat really don’t work for my body. If your current diet doesn’t seem to be supporting you, look up which nutrients you may be missing and find ways to incorporate them. Look for common irritants and allergies and research their symptoms. If you’re constantly bloated or have chronic headaches, there may be a persistent ingredient in your diet that is the cause. Your family tree is also a good reference point. Become a detective for a minute: Did your mother have PCOS-like symptoms? Did your father have lactose intolerance when he was your age?
Armed with knowledge about how you typically feel under which circumstances, you can start to play around with variables. This can get confusing. It’s helpful to start with one food group at a time; for example, a strategy that’s worked for me is to have a “no sugar” week, followed by an “eat all the fiber” week, followed by “less dairy” week. Going back and looking through the notes I took during those periods has been very informative in guiding my grocery lists.
Know in advance that your brain will try to trick you out of this.
A few days into my food experiment, I was starting to feel better. “Whatever. It’s just food—there’s no way it can be this important,” I thought. “If I just have a glass of wine, it’ll be no big deal—it’s what the character in this book I’m reading just did, and she’s doing fine.” Our brains want the comfort food they’re used to, and they know how to get it. This is where it’s helpful to enlist extremely honest and loving partners, family members, and friends who can remind you of your goals and support you as you meet them.
Make a list of little wins, and make those your Holy Grail. It’s easier to skip the Oreo section of the grocery store when you’re concentrating on the fact that you’re sleeping well for the first time in months, or that yesterday you had the energy to go on a run after work.
Focus on consistency.
Results don’t come with one day of avoiding a food you think might be problematic. Here are a few magic numbers to think about:
- It takes about two weeks for an increased fat buildup in your liver to dissipate.
- It can take up to three weeks for blood sugar levels to normalize, especially if they’re used to rocketing up and down dramatically.
- It can take up to twelve weeks for our gut linings to recover, especially if we’ve been eating inflammatory foods regularly or have acute food sensitivities.
When you cut out a food, its absence won’t seem like a big deal for a day or two; then it’ll be the worst thing ever for a few days. After that, you’ll stop caring. Then you’ll see results.
It starts with food, but it’s not all about food.
In order to really amp up results and become happier versions of ourselves, we’ve got to see the whole picture. The foods we eat are the building blocks for our mood and our emotions—literally—but if we aren’t practicing effective self-care or taking care of our brain in other ways, we aren’t going to get too far.
Give yourself the grace to do this as is realistic for you.
It’d be great to give up all kinds of unhealthy foods at once and chart the gradual lessening of your symptoms, but that can seem like a huge hurdle (because it is) and too much of a commitment for your current life (because it may be). The important thing is that you get started. Listen to yourself, be honest with yourself, and practice consistency. Repeat.
It’s a big step, to go from “I know this food doesn’t make me feel good,” to “I want to feel good, so I will not eat this food.” But it’s worth it: Since I stopped listening to the noise about irrelevant and conflicting dietary trends and started looking inward, I’ve been happier. My mental clutter has decreased, for one, and I’ve had energy levels that I haven’t had since I was a teenager. I’ve also found myself turning back toward creative projects that had been on the back burner for far too long.
Let’s cut out the middle man between food and ourselves. We are the only ones who can know how food makes us—uniquely—feel. External sources and testimonies and research can be taken into consideration, but at the end of the day, we’re the ones putting food on our plates, and we’re the ones who have to live with the results. Cultivating dietary habits that work for our unique lives is a lifelong project, but it’s worth the investment. The first step is to slow down and learn to listen to yourself.
Author’s note: Other resources that have been helpful for me (and are mostly consistent, but have their own biases and emphases) include WomanCode by Alisa Vitti, It Starts With Food by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig, and Genius Foods by Max Lugavere.