Eating To Save My Mind

Can diet determine the future of your mental health? Claire Fitzsimmons attempts to find out through a month of Whole30.

Claire Fitzsimmons | Longreads | January 2020 | 18 minutes (3,796 words)

I’m at my neighbor’s house for a Super Bowl party. Taylor is a wonderful cook and a generous host. We’ve had Thanksgiving and Christmas with her family, and there’s an abundance of other Pinterest-worthy spreads we’ve indulged in. 

The girl can cook, and today she’s excelling in her field. There are loaded potato skins with chili and all the toppings. Bursting filled jalapeños and chip ‘n’ dips. Coffee tables, side tables, table tables groan under food. Feet are up, eyes forward, mouths open, as our American friends fulfill their patriotic duty by stuffing themselves in front of a sporting event.

I’m way out of my depth and ill at ease. I’m trying not to look at The Food. And I am definitely trying not to catch Taylor’s eye as I avoid everything on offer. But she is noticing, and she’s got me: “You’re not eating.” 

 “Oh,” I say. “Oh.”

 Then I offer, apologetically, “I’m on Whole30.” 

***

It’s the beginning of the year — the time that we still have faith in our dietary resolutions. For me, this means 30 days following a no-nonsense approach to eating — no sugar, dairy, grains, alcohol, legumes, carrageenan, MSG or sulfites, baked goods or junk food. But I can have, quite thrillingly, loads of veggies, some fruit, meat and fish, and a few other exciting things. Like nuts.

Taylor’s heard of Whole30 and now thinks she gets it. A light shines in her eyes, and she says, “Great! Are you trying to lose weight?” Cursory look at my belly. I’m forgiven for not consuming her food.

 “No,” I say. Then hesitate. “What I’m really trying to do is not go mad.”   

Cue awkward end to the conversation on my part. It is a lot easier to say I need to shed 10 pounds than not go crazy in 10 years.

I’m doing this Whole30 malarkey for one reason. I’m trying to figure out if there’s some connection, any connection, between what I eat and who I may become. I don’t yet know how to communicate that. I’m learning it’s a position that needs to be defended throughout my day, with everyone around me. It seems OK to say I am eating a restrictive diet or making different food choices for weight loss, or to detect food intolerances, or for increased energy or better skin, but connecting my diet so explicitly to mental health doesn’t yet seem acceptable. 

 Over the month of Whole30 and since, I’ve had this conversation in various iterations, playing around with the punch line: 

 “Emm, it’s to make me happier.” This is not entirely true, but way easier to say. Now there’s the assumption that I am not happy and somehow flawed.

 “Emm, it’s to prevent me from eventually going mad.” Now they are looking for evidence that (a) I am already mad, or (b) that I am going mad. Which is probably fair as that’s the whole point of the exercise.

I’ve also noticed this response, an incredulous, “But does that actually make sense, does that actually work?” To which I respond with my equally incredulous, “Don’t know.”

The whole thing is something of an experiment. A knee-jerk reaction to spending last Christmas and New Year with my parents. After a month with them at my home in California I put them on the Rainbow Bus to the airport and back to the U.K. I don’t cry. Instead, I do this: I take a deep breath and drive to Whole Foods. I need to prove I am a different person than my mother, who struggles with extreme (and undiagnosed) mental health issues. My mum’s condition over her stay has frightened me, and I need to do something about it. Right this very minute. 

And so, I start, not with therapy, or a trip to my doctor for a pill, but with diet. At that moment I believe that nutrition is an easy and immediate lifestyle change. I can go straight to a store and change the course of my life through groceries.  

Whole30 may seem an arbitrary start — I could have chosen GAPS, or the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, MIND or the Mediterranean approach. Whole30 doesn’t make explicit claims to be a mental health diet, but it does offer a few things that trip into that territory: restoring a healthy metabolism, healing your digestive tract and systemic inflammation, balancing your immune system and hormones, and helping you figure out how foods affect you. The Whole30 website refers to “psychologically unhealthy” and “inflammatory food groups.” It also mentions, along with higher energy levels and better sleep, “improved focus and mental clarity, and a sunnier disposition.” Testimonials say the diet helped with depression and bipolar disorder.

What Whole30 represents for me is a starting point. We’re often so blinded by science and experts and studies, by new books, knowledge, and advice, that we can’t even get to a beginning, much less to actual change. We need to back one thing, rather than all those hundreds of choices that affect and shape and manipulate our daily lives and mental well-being. 

I’ve also decided to dive right into this diet because of my friend Sarah. As someone who is living with a bipolar disorder, she claimed that on Whole30 she recovered some emotional equilibrium. She’s not kooky or smug about food the way some people can be, but she is no-nonsense about everything she does. She has anxiety and Whole30 helps her. And that doesn’t seem like a bad place to start. 

 

Day 1:

So here we go: It’s day one of Whole30. I have a fridge packed with veg and fruit, seafood and meat, and too many coconut products to count.

Already I’m doubting: How will I know if it’s working? What are the criteria for noticing change? It’s not like I’m working from zero — I have anxiety attacks each month, more if things are tricky in my life. Can I get my brain to feel less muddled? Can I force it in a different direction, and will I notice if I’m succeeding? 

I wonder if my mum’s diet did contribute to where she is in her life? She has always had a healthy relationship with her weight; she’d been a happy size 16 until she became depressed and anxious and her weight swelled. But my memories of what she ate and how she approached food are sketchy.

I’ve never examined my own relationship with food. I’m now learning it falls into the “neglected” category. I self-soothe with baked goods. I don’t think I’m deserving of a salad. I send myself messages through food that I don’t matter. But I love thinking about food, and food stores, and cookbooks. I love all the things around it, but I haven’t previously connected the actual process of cooking to self-care and emotional and psychological health. 

 

Only Day 2:

I’m making myself some lunch, drinking a couple of glasses of water and getting a coffee — all Whole30 compliant, but I’m starting to think this idea is a bunch of crap. Will my brain really stay healthy and my emotional state balanced if I eat enough cava oranges, carrots, celery, and cucumber? 

I cannot find my feet, I cannot get grounded. An earl grey scone and a lavender latte sound bloody marvelous. A warm drink, some comforting carbohydrates. Something nourishing and cozy. Epic bacon pieces — blah! I’m feeling grumpy and dissatisfied and leaden. 

But I also feel privileged that this is what is preoccupying my thoughts today. My Self-Improvement Project. My mum is likely staring into space for hours; or walking around the house saying, “I don’t have a head. I need to get out of here.” And here I am on the West Coast wondering how I’ll cope with a restricted diet. 


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Day 8:

How do you make more time to shop and chop and prepare and cook, and then eat? A bowl of fruit and nuts takes way longer than a piece of toast mostly because you can’t wander around the house with it one-handed doing five different tasks! 

Case in point, this morning. We have one hour to turn the family around from fast asleep to dressed, fed, and out the door:

 7 a.m.: Awake. 

 7:15 a.m.: Cat fed, dishwasher emptied, nappy off. 

 7:20 a.m.: Have managed to make my Whole30 coffee (steam almond milk, pull shot of espresso). 

 7:25 a.m.: In shower with said coffee. 

 7:40 a.m.: Out of shower, coffee not drunk, kids not dressed. Husband tells me he’s leaving early. Have a brief, unsatisfactory argument about notice-giving.

 7:45 a.m.: All kids have piled into the bathroom while I’m doing my makeup, wanting to play with mascara and wash my blusher brush with Sensodyne.

 7:50 a.m.: Kids kicked out the bathroom, still undressed. Husband leaves. 

 7:55 a.m.: Panic. Two pack lunches made — but have forgotten to empty my son’s backpack from Friday so have to wash dirty (read: moldy) lunchbox. Can’t find water bottles. 

 8:10 a.m.: Get kids dressed. My daughter has a tantrum, hides in her fort, and I have to pull her out by her legs. 

 8:20 a.m.: Making my breakfast — chopped banana, pecans, blueberries, coconut milk, cinnamon. Eat two mouthfuls, look at breakfast as I leave the house. 

 8:30 a.m.: In the car. 

 8:35 a.m.: Out the car, have forgotten son’s lunchbox plus snacks to get me through the morning at work.

 8:40 a.m.: Get to school and drop off one kid late. Son gets a tardy slip but thinks he’s just won a certificate.

 8:50 a.m.: Get to preschool with my daughter whose eating carrots from her lunchbox for breakfast and forgotten her shoes. Find some shoes in the boot. 

 9 a.m.: Over to café to work — order almond milk with one shot latte and think fuck this — where’s the bagel and full-fat vanilla latte!

Back at home, I have tons of veg, packets and packets of meat, and no meals. That’s because I need to cook — kabocha squash soup, shepherd’s pie, dump ranch (mmm appetizing). Looking at my day ahead, I have maybe 30 minutes of wiggle room. Which means cooking with kids. Which means, heart beating fast, increasingly frantic 4 to 5 p.m. period, when I’m trying to distract them with games, art projects, books, or random snacks, until I lose the fight and proffer the iPad. 

Then I’m in a funny calculation — is my mental health more important than the amount of screen time my kids get today? Is cutting down on carbs, sugar, and wheat for me more important than the frozen pizza I’ll inevitably offer my kids when they decide they don’t want the aforementioned kabocha squash soup and shepherd’s pie?

Dad calls. Mum has the test results from her brain imaging scan. The good news, there’s nothing wrong. She has what looks like a remarkably healthy brain for her age. The doctor is saying it’s not neurological but psychological and is referring her back to her GP. Another possible explanation is gone. My doubt fills the space it vacates. This diet is feeling like a bandaid for a black hole.  

 

Day 12 (yet pressing on): 

Where I live, in a post-hippie, affluent town, one in three people (not a real figure) are already doing Whole30 and don’t fall over in horror at the cost and taste of Paleo bacon and green juice. I have plenty of cheerleaders and few doubters. There are so many I trip over them in parties and the supermarket. 

Even at Johnny’s Donuts I bumped into a mum from school who, like me, was abstaining from the donuts and nursing her dairy-free latte. She said she’d been gluten-free for a long time and chooses the wheat-free thang (yep, it’s called that) when she makes it to donut heaven. I suspect she wasn’t dying inside like me. 

Last night, at a birthday party for a 2-year-old neighbor, I turned down cupcakes and pizza and sheepishly said I was on Whole30. The host said her best friend is heavily into it. Another guest said she did it a year ago, that it changed her life and health, and that she was now studying to be a dietitian to help cure chronic illnesses. No shame or undermining here, more a feeling that I have come to it late, like being the last person still smoking. 

Although it’s hard to explain my reasoning, the actual changes to my diet, the obsession over food, isn’t weird and wacky — it’s as essential as getting exercise and not drinking too much alcohol. It’s everywhere — in the gluten-free pizza store in town, and the many milks on offer for that coffee. We have a whole grocery store devoted to eating well (which here also means “being a good person”). My husband can’t go there as the Well Angels singing from the roof and the life aphorisms floating from the mouths of the check-out people drive him straight to the taqueria down the road. 

Too often, finding food religion comes with a side-dish of smugness. Don’t just have a nice day, but have the best day you could possibly have. It can be oppressive in its positivity.

It also doesn’t sit well with my northern England background, which is more fish and chips than avocado on toast. There’s this thought playing out in my mind — eating this way is “boring” (I’m basically still a truculent teenager). My husband shares the same latent baggage: Over the past few days he has offered me beer and lasagna and cornflakes. 

For some reason I still think of a burger as more “fun” than a salad, and that if someone orders the latter they are a bit of a downer. Where does that come from? That we can so firmly associate what we eat, with who is eating it and who they are?

You over there with the scone and triple-shot Frappuccino and bacon butty. You, you are exciting and reckless and wonderful company. You there with the coconut milk matcha, wild salmon sushi, and two dates. You, well, you are dull and questionable company. 

Eating differently overhauls our images around food, not just our shopping habits. We have huge cultural and personal assumptions to combat. 

Here’s another counterintuitive thing that I realized. Whole30 feels indulgent, not depriving. I am actually thinking — endlessly — about looking after myself. I made an amazing veg-laden stew yesterday that I thought would be rubbish, but it was tasty and soothing. And that rushed bagel breakfast? I’m finding, irrespective of the science, that I like monkey jars with cashews, blueberries, almond butter, and shredded coconut. It makes me feel good in a different way. These foods can be intoxicating; flavors and taste rather than fuel and convenience, variety can be indulgent. Before I ate mostly white foods — pasta, rice, bread, tortillas, bagels; my rainbow diet was really a flattened-out snowscape.

 

Day 16:

It’s hard to prove the effect of this diet on my mood and my brain. To say that my serotonin levels are doing fab and that my amygdala is firing on all cylinders. Much easier to say I’ve lost 30 pounds and my cheeks are rosy. We need to see something shift to know there’s change afoot. That’s tricky with mental health.

Why am I feeling happier today? Because my two-year-old daughter finally didn’t interrupt my sleep six times last night? Because my husband and I haven’t had a fight in two days? Because I am finally finding equilibrium after my parents’ visit? 

Or is that pause of happiness, that moment of relief, that calm in the day, because I made a laborious non-oat porridge this morning for breakfast and found an almond milk coconut creamer for my coffee that I actually like? 

There’s identifying an emotional state, tracing a mood, then seeing results. 

There’s also something empowering in just saying I am going to make shifts to help my mental health. Which leads us to the placebo effect. 

It’s hard to have that doubt and sign myself up to a rigorous lifestyle change. You have to know it works to invest time and effort and resources. If I get to 55 and my brain cracks up anyway I’m going to be pissed that I missed out on all those baked goods and gin and tonics. 

 

Day 23:

Another house, another explanation. Invited to a work brunch, I swallowed hard before I said,  “I’ll come but I’m on a restrictive diet.” God, I’m sounding arsy. When I arrived at my colleague Ann’s home, she offered coffee. I’d brought my own. “Is it for ill health?” she asked. No. “Food intolerances?” No. “Auto-immune?” No. This time I do say, “I’m trying not to lose my mind.”

Ann laughed. She has a family background steeped in mental health issues and said, “It’s not about what you eat, it’s not about lifestyle even — keep those things in check, in mind — but have a sense of self, not just a diet.” 

 She explained, “You haven’t had the trauma associated with your mother’s diagnosis” (Dissociative identity disorder — the latest idea that the doctors are testing for her). 

“You are not her. YOU ARE NOT HER.” 

If my mum was still OK, if she could still soothe me with her words like she used to when I was little, she’d have said the same: that it would all be fine. She’d have given me that baseline from which to work. But as she can’t, it has fallen to someone who knows me just enough to linger in the space she has vacated. Sitting in Ann’s kitchen looking out to where the San Andreas fault crosses her property, I allow the search for fixes to wobble for just a moment. She offers words to counter my own fears; she offers reassurance to prop me up through uncertainty and self-doubt. And I take them even as I continue to refuse the toast also on offer. 

 

Day 30: 

I’m done. Kind of. There’s an additional 10 days of reintroducing — legumes, then dairy, then non-gluten wheat, then wheat. There’s no blow-out pizza, donuts, and a pint of vodka, there’s a carefully managed way of bringing back foods that might be problematic. But I’m done with the constant questioning, the anxiety-making choices.

Overall, I think I’m feeling better. That I like eating this way. That I’m aware of some good changes in my body and mind. But I’m not really done, am I? There’s not a single month that happens, then an opt-out clause for the rest of your life. It’s never finished. How long do I really have to do this for? And we’re back to the question, does it actually work?

For me this exercise hasn’t been about identifying food groups that bring me out in spots or make me feel bloated, it’s about finding the ones that work on my mood and my emotional and psychological stability. I’m still left wondering whether I am well calibrated enough to figure out those nuances.

 

Since:

Today my back started aching again. I saw this as evidence that the bagel for lunch and pasta for dinner was having an immediate negative impact. 

 “Hey Si,” I say, “my back’s hurting. See, diet.” 

He says, “Maybe it’s because you lifted that rented steam carpet cleaner in and out of the car then up and down the stairs all afternoon.” 

Me. “Oh.” 

Getting a headache. Hmm, maybe that’s the milk introduced? Or maybe it’s the fact that that jug of water that I make in the morning, the one with random cucumbers or apples or lemons thrown in for infusing, has not been touched. That all I’ve managed to drink is two lattes, one soda, and a cup of tea. 

My brain is foggy. I’m trying to remember two lines for a radio piece I’m recording. It’s 9:30 on a Monday night. I’m knackered. Is that lack of sleep, the end of a long, long day, or the fact that I have eaten more white carbs today than in a six-week period?

How do you pinpoint what is happening to you at which moment and why? We do not exist in a lab. We do not live in a vacuum. Our sense of awareness is dependent on so many shifting factors: what’s going on inside us, what’s happening around us. Could my disquietude be just a bad sleep, the horrific events in Syria, my daughter crapping on the carpet during potty training, a depleting bank account … or the cheese I added to my pasta? 

Our narrative arcs are only apparent in retrospect. Some threads are graspable: around relationships or professional lives. Others are strands we try to reach for: our state of mind, our sense of self.  

In a moment in my life when anxiety is creeping in at the corners and threatening to seep through the floors, I need to believe that there are doors that can be bolted and structures that can be reinforced. I need to believe that what I do matters. I need to believe that I can stave off mental decline. I need to believe that those tiny choices that I make every day — how often I move my body, if I manage to meditate or journal, how often I pick up my phone to check social media, and yes around what I choose to eat — are as significant as the Bigs Ones — who we marry, the children we raise, where we live. Collectively they may make pivots of a similar magnitude. 

But amid the bravado it is all just practice, experiments in our own lives — with muddied causation, unclear effects and unintended consequences. I have both everything at my disposal and almost no way of knowing their impacts. I don’t know who I’ll be in my later years. I can’t possibly know for sure if my mind will fail me. I don’t know if I’ll become my mother. It may all be decided for me already in some genetic code. 

Food for this moment, in the form of Whole30, is just something to tie myself to as I try not to heed the siren calls of my mother’s condition. What I eat signifies not what goes into my body but the presence of that other future insinuating itself into my life right now. As madness and brain fog linger on the horizon, I try to do more than just hope that they never fully arrive. I know that’s a big ask for green juice. Even as I know that kale and all its Whole30 compliant friends are going to have a place in my fridge, in my life, just that little bit longer.

***

A Brit now based in California, Claire Fitzsimmons is the cofounder of If Lost Start Here, a guidebook to thoughtful destinations that make everyday life better. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, Mother Magazine, The Independent, and Anxy amongst others.

Editor: Carolyn Wells