Good mood? Bad mood? Maybe it’s what we’re eating! The Washington Post’s award-winning correspondent and editor Mary Beth Albright is out to change minds about food and to better minds with food.
Mary Beth Albright
In her new book, Eat & Nourish: How Food Supports Emotional Well-Being, Mary Beth eagerly shows scientifically supported evidence connecting food and emotional health, which is a real game changer to build healthier, wholesome minds. I was intrigued with the idea that eating the right combination of foods can actually change my outlook on life. Mary Beth explains this important connection and urges us to enjoy, as she says, “food for (better) thought.”
EYE: Have you always been interested in food?
MARY BETH ALBRIGHT: I have always loved food. Nobody cooked in my house. I learned to cook in my twenties. I’m now a food and recipe writer and have even done food videos. I think the reason that it’s become so powerful to me is because I used to look at it as my biggest weakness that, Oh my God, I love food and I can’t stop eating or whatever.
I have turned my biggest weakness into my greatest strength because now I’ve taken the experience I’ve had as a public health expert and as a lawyer, food writer and policy person, and brought it all together in this book.
EYE: I understand that you’re a food attorney. Can you explain?
MARY BETH: It depends on who you are. A food attorney is anybody who deals with the legal issues around food. For me, it was about policy, health policy. What is the government doing to try to encourage people to eat in a way that’s in their best interest; what gets funded; what kind of laws are there surrounding food, that kind of thing.
We saw a lot of weaknesses in the food system during the pandemic. A lot of people became food insecure and food insecurity will affect you psychologically for the rest of your life.
There’s a higher incidence of eating disorders in people who have experienced food insecurity. How mental health can be damaged by food is really what I focus on.
EYE: So your goal is to make a concerted effort for more awareness about food and public health?
MARY BETH: Oh, absolutely. Awareness. The book is a very practical guide. There’s a 30-day plan in the back of the book. The first week of the plan is focusing on increasing your food pleasure using tricks that chefs use to make you believe that their food is better.
For example, if you eat dessert on a round plate, it will taste sweeter than if you eat that same dessert on a rectangular plate just because of the way our brain works. We don’t know why. We don’t know what the mechanism is, but we know that it happens. There are lots of those little tricks in the book.
EYE: Most people think of monitoring food or focusing on food is for losing weight or handling allergies. What intrigued you to dig into the food and emotional health connection?
MARY BETH: I feel like a big part of my mission with this book was to make sure people could have a practical guide to eating well for their emotional well-being without focusing on things like weight.
All of the science that I looked at, and I’ve been researching this for 15, 20 years since I was at the Surgeon General’s office, shows that what you eat affects your emotions and even your responses to things like stress or anger and how you feel.
Your emotions affect what you eat and how your brain perceives that flavor. All of these things can happen independent of weight. You hear people say Oh, this isn’t a diet, but you’ll probably lose weight. Weight loss is not the focus of this at all. And to me, that was just such a freeing message.
EYE: How does food physically harm or help mental, emotional health?
MARY BETH: Every time we eat anything, whether it’s a carrot stick or a piece of cake or a sandwich or salad, it creates biological effects in our bodies because it’s the raw materials that we’re putting inside of us. The effects of those foods can either be long-term helpful or long-term harmful.
I go into four different aspects of that in the book.
ONE: the inflammatory aspects of food.
TWO: gut microbiome, which are the bacteria that live inside of your digestive system, that science now shows affects a lot of our emotional well-being.
THREE: it’s about the nutrients.
FOURTH pillar, which is, to me, the biggest one as a food writer: pleasure, because pleasure is a form of human nourishment.
EYE: Would you explain how emotions and eating are “entwined like vines” as you say?
MARY BETH: In your gut microbiome, there’s different bacteria; there’s trillions of bacteria. Everyone’s gut microbiome is different. It’s like a fingerprint. If you have certain bacteria in your gut microbiome, it will take the tryptophan, which everybody thinks about with turkey making you sleepy and feeling good, and turn it into serotonin, which is beneficial for our emotional well-being.
Or if you have other bacteria, it can turn that tryptophan into an inflammatory agent and cause inflammation in your body. That can wreak havoc with your emotional well-being. We’re seeing that in the science of how the neurons in our gut talk to the neurons in our brain.
EYE: You say food’s interaction with the brain is particular to each person.
MARY BETH: That’s correct. But there are some things that appear to be universal among people. One of those things is inflammation. When you think about inflammation, it’s just your immune system at work. You cut your finger, it swells, it gets warm, it gets red; that’s inflammation. That’s your immune system helping you heal.
When we eat ultra-high processed foods, which are the foods that you see basically in the middle aisle of the grocery store and things that last forever on the shelf, those ingredients are inflammatory.
Your body isn’t recognizing what those ingredients are so it releases tiny little inflammatory compounds into your blood which can get through the blood brain barrier, into your brain and wreak havoc with your emotional well-being. Sixty to seventy percent of our food system is ultra high processed foods right now.
We really need to be aware of what we’re putting in our bodies. It doesn’t have to mean giving up all pleasure; it just means being more aware of it.
EYE: What foods do you find enhance strong overall positive mental health?
MARY BETH: The number one most important thing is diversity, diversity in your whole food diet. The American Gut Project was started after the human genome was mapped to take a look at the gut microbiome and how it affects all kinds of things: social decision making or mood, our sleep, our sex drive. The Gut Project found people who eat 30 different plants per week have significantly better health outcomes than people who eat ten different plants a week.
EYE: That sounds like a lot of plants!
MARY BETH: When you think about it, wheat is a plant. Corn is a plant. Lettuce is a plant that is separate from kale. A lot of times I will just go to a salad bar in the grocery store and think, I haven’t had beets in a while and just get some beets that are already chopped up and cooked, making it easy.
There are superfoods which are foods that have more nutritional value per calorie: berries, nuts are amazing, beans, legumes, lentils, all kinds of fruits and vegetables, fatty fish and olive oil. It’s basically what you think of as a Mediterranean diet, which a lot of us are familiar with and find really palatable.
EYE: Is preparation also a key?
MARY BETH: Food preparation can be a really big enhancer of emotional well-being. There’s a lot of research behind that. When you do sort of meditative, almost like repetitive cooking tasks, whether it’s kneading, chopping or stirring, those can have the same effect on your brain as other forms of mindfulness. It also increases your food pleasure to be involved in something that you make.
Now, for people who are looking to just put dinner on the table for screaming hungry people, that cannot be meditative. There are all kinds of tips, along with recipes, in the book about different ways that you can incorporate this into your life, so it doesn’t seem overwhelming to people who are already overwhelmed trying to mind their emotional well-being.
EYE: A major emotional issue seems to be stress. Is there a particular food or food group that triggers stress?
MARY BETH: Well, it depends on your own body. A lot of times the blood sugar spikes when you eat sugar by itself. An example would be drinking juice without the fiber or having a candy bar. If you have any sort of concentrated sugar, those blood sugar spikes can really cause some people a lot of stress.
Just try to have something else with it that’ll slow down that absorption like nuts or anything with fiber. Also, try figuring out how do I nourish my body for the long term so that next month I don’t feel this kind of stress is very important.
EYE: What food would you suggest to handle stress?
MARY BETH: In one of the studies, they believe that we need a lot of magnesium to process stress, and we need to replenish that. The science is about omega three fatty acids which are abundant in fatty fish and found in walnuts, flax seeds and other plants.
EYE: Now, you also say something, which I love, that eating with another person at least once a day is helpful. Why?
MARY BETH: It’s what I call the “feast paradox.” People who eat with other people eat more food. A lot of times we associate eating more food with worse health. But the feast paradox is they enjoy better health outcomes. We don’t know the mechanism.
It could be the protective effect of community, of having friends. It could also be that whenever you eat anything, your body releases dopamine and that helps with bonding.
EYE: What have you personally come away with this book?
MARY BETH: A lot. Right before the pandemic, I went through a difficult divorce. I am a working single mother of a 14-year-old boy who eats….like a 14-year-old boy. I think the biggest thing that I have changed is making sure that I am sitting down at a table, preferably with another person, whenever I eat anything.
Again, it’s not perfection. I enjoy a summer peach over the kitchen sink as much as the next person. But when I’m having a meal, any meal, to be able to sit down and give that meal the respect of whatever time I can give it, even if it’s 5 minutes, that’s fine.
EYE: Do you have a favorite go-to recipe for yourself?
MARY BETH: I love my breakfast muffins that are in the book with the recipe that are really, really easy to make, just eggs, quinoa, vegetables and cheese. I mean, what could be wrong? You can just heat one up in the morning, a quick few seconds in the microwave and eat it.
I also love the blueberry crisp recipe because it’s great with fresh or frozen blueberries. It’s something that you can just like throw together with a kid. You don’t use a mixer; you just use your fingers to break up everything. I find that really very sensually satisfying.
EYE: Bottom line, what do you want readers to get from your book?
MARY BETH: I want everyone to enjoy their food while they are nourishing their mental health. And that’s what I hope for myself as well. Doing this research has helped me to do just that. I know it will help other people to do the same thing.
EYE: Mary Beth also continues to proactively educate and support better mental health with the special group of women culinary experts, Les Dames d’Escoffier. Thank you for your time, Mary Beth, and may we all enjoy better, nourished brains with your insights.
Mary Beth Albright social media:
Website: Mary Beth Albright