Eat well to be well? Food and Mental Health are connected but the relationship is not so simple

By Celine Goulart, Joma Dix, and TYFPC Education Committee

Reflections on panel discussion “Mood Food Connections: Food and Student Mental Health on Campus” hosted by New College Food Equity Studies in partnership with the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council (TYFPC) at the University of Toronto, March 9 2016.

New College Food Equity Studies and the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council (TYFPC) partnered this past March to present a panel exploring rarely-discussed relationships between food and mental health. The panel touched on personal and systemic connections between food and mental health with a particular focus on the experiences of youth attending university or college.

The community meeting brought together diverse speakers from a range of disciplines to highlight the range of experiences and multitude of connections that exist between the two themes. Panelists included chef and institutional food service consultant Joshna Maharaj, mental fitness coach Mark Freeman, dietician Robert Smith, naturopathic clinician Jonathan Prousky, N.D., and York student and community organizer Shenikqwa Phillip. The evening was moderated by Food Studies scholar Wayne Roberts.

Six panelists seated behind table

To begin, Joshna Maharaj spoke about the relationship between good food and mental health and wellness on campuses. While at Ryerson, Joshna worked to redesign campus food services. Her approach recognized the potential for food services to support students’ physical and mental health. Their menus focused on student experience, aiming to support students with recipes designed to provide energy and support cognitive function through stressful exam season, as well as helping them feel good by eating something delicious. Joshna’s plan emphasized that delicious and healthy snacks must also be affordable so that students could actually choose healthier items without increasing financial stress. Taking it a step further, Ryerson created opportunities for students to develop relationships and socialize while learning about food and gaining important food skills in the form of food-focused events, field trips, and relationships with Ryerson’s own rooftop farm.

Joshna maintained that universities have a huge responsibility to support student mental health and that good campus food policy can create campus food systems that support student well -being. Despite this, university policies privileging cost-effectiveness and measurable academic outcomes challenge expansion of these kinds of programs.

Mark Freeman, mental health coach and founder of online resource Everybody Has a Brain (, spoke of his experience managing mental health issues as a student, specifically Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and its impact on his relationship with food. Mark’s story showed how some mental health issues can impact eating patterns and a person’s ability to socialize due to fear of eating publicly or even of injuring others while cooking. Since many of his compulsions surrounded food, he found food preparation and consumption particularly difficult and often found it hard to eat properly. It became clear that for individuals struggling with mental health issues, food can be a major obstacle. Mark also emphasized the importance of social support in reducing the negative impacts of mental health issues. For individuals dealing with traumatic experiences, he told us, perceived lack of social support is the primary predictor of developing PTSD, even more so than the severity of the incident. In this way Mark identified social time preparing and eating food as fundamental to feeling social connection and support. If food is an obstacle, than a primary access point for social support might be limited, further isolating the individual in need of social support.

Robert Smith, the sole dietitian available to students at University of Toronto’s St. George campus and program coordinator at their Health & Wellness Centre, discussed the adequacy of food access as crucial for all students’ well-being. He also stressed that mental health issues significantly increase the likelihood of difficult relationships with food and inadequate food options. Robert also discussed perceptions about health, what “healthy” bodies look like, fad dieting, and eating disorders. Students may be especially vulnerable here, as young adults (18-26) are most at-risk for developing eating disorders. A key challenge is staffing to meet the needs for dietary guidance of students looking for help. Robert insightfully teased apart societal views about what constitutes a “healthy body,” showing us that unfounded judgements on bodies of different sizes often force connections between weight and mental health status that might not be present. He emphasized the detrimental impact of comments on changes in a person’s physical body, whether positive or negative, and implored the audience to keep comments about health and body size to themselves.

Jonathan Prousky, N.D., chief naturopathic clinician at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, emphasized the physical and significant nutritional requirements of the brain as an organ. For students undergoing constant stress and requiring high levels of cognitive function, adequate nutrition is very important. The brain is relatively greedy, making up only 2% of a person’s body weight while consuming some 20% of the bodies energy intake. He further framed the brain as sensitive to the foods we consume, drawing connections between food sensitivities and cognitive function, referencing successes largely found in clinical practice. Overall, Prousky stressed the importance of addressing a whole person, looking at lifestyle nutritional status and tailoring interventions individually based on a person’s needs and medical history.

Closing the panel, Shenikqwa Phillip, President of York United Black Students Alliance, a York University student, and participant in the Growing Good summer course in Community Practice and Agroecological growing methods, spoke of her struggle to find a safe space in order to feel a deep connection with good food. She shared personal struggles dealing with racism and sexism in growing spaces that are often thought of as inherently safe and welcoming environments. Speaking from her experience as a student and a black woman, she explained the increased stress and difficulty many racialized students have trying to access spaces where issues of race, gender, class, or other lines of oppression are ignored or simply not addressed and the direct impact this has a student’s mental health. These stresses further compound the stress of food insecurity and increase the energy required to keep yourself mentally well, never mind doing well academically, while in school. When considering food and mental health, it is important to understand that the systems of oppression and privilege that frame our food system directly impact mental health.

TYFPC Network Committee materials on table with banner to the left

There was a clear focus on food as a youth-led movement throughout the evening and on mental health as something we all have and need to maintain, existing on a spectrum. Despite some disagreements about the nature of the relationship between food and mental health, it was clear that our well-being is deeply connected to food. This discussion is crucial, as food is not just how we nourish our brains, but an essential part of everyday social interactions. Lack of access to good food may lead to stress and anxiety and compound the negative effects of other mental health issues. Perhaps when considering changes to food policy on campus it’s not entirely about providing causal proof of an initiative’s impact on academic outcomes, as is often a consideration for universities, but about creating campus food policies that support student health and well-being by improving food access, social connectivity, and the quality of student life while in school.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *