Cooking and Eating for Mental Health & Wellness

August 2nd, 2016

by Tracy McGillis

The Mind-Body-Kitchen/Garden Connection

Did you know that accessing and preparing healthy, whole foods can reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD and even chronic pain? It makes sense, if you consider how intricately connected our brains and bodies are. But how exactly does cooking help me if I’m feeling anxious or depressed?  Have you ever noticed how your brain and body feel after you’ve prepared and eaten a delicious, balanced meal that satisfies your hunger and cravings? What’s different about that versus how you feel after hurriedly cramming down a pastry or bagel that you didn’t really want in the first place but grabbed because it’s the only thing around. If you can imagine the difference in how your mind/body felt in these two scenarios, then you have a sense of where I’m going with this. Preparing and eating tasty, nutrient-dense food creates a unique mindfulness opportunity that promotes grounding, embodiment and connection. These actions also positively affect brain function, mood, and mental clarity through better nutrition.

As I’ve observed over the years of teaching and cooking, there are three integrated actions related to improved mental health: (1) choosing foods that you truly enjoy and that nourish and support mind and mood (2) taking part in the physical act of preparing food, which we’re now learning has mental health benefits of it’s own; and (3) whenever possible, cooking and eating in community or with other people. Unfortunately, when we’re feeling anxious or stressed, these practices can be some of the first things to go. I encourage my clients to explore their relationship to food and begin to shift their thinking about symptoms and mood to include cooking and eating as a foundational piece of their mental health care. Below are some basic tips on connecting these pieces.  You don’t have to do all of the things listed below (you may not even be ready to do any of them). Maybe you start by simply becoming aware of them, noticing subtle or not-so-subtle differences in how you think and feel. Change can be hard, and our relationships to food are usually complex and multi-layered. Be kind and patient with yourself and consider any small changes made to be huge successes in this area!

These tips are are operating with the assumption that you have resources to access quality food. If access to fresh foods is a barrier, for geographic and/or financial reasons, there are lots of programs in San Francisco that can help get you connected (contact me for more information). Healthy, fresh food is a basic human right that nobody should have to go without.


Tips for Feeling Better – Food and Mood

Whole Over Processed

Whenever possible, choose whole foods over processed. Whole foods are generally more nutrient dense. That means your system gets the benefit of higher levels of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, fiber and water (think whole orange instead of juice/smoothie or whole almonds/walnuts vs. granola bar). If you’re lacking sufficient amounts of essential vitamins and nutrients, you’ll feel this in the way of fatigue, brain fog, and possibly even symptoms of depression.

Go for Protein and Fat

Our brains are made up primarily of fat, and they need protein to function as well. Neurotransmitters (the chemicals that tell our brains what to do) need high quality sources of protein to work optimally. While we don’t need to overdo it with fat and protein, don’t avoid them either, especially if you struggle with attention and focus. Meals earlier in the day that include fat and protein can be particularly beneficial to people with ADHD, helping to maintain focus and mental clarity throughout the day. Good sources of protein are fish and shellfish, grass fed or pastured meats, and eggs. For healthy fats go for avocados, nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, and whole milk dairy. As you can see, supporting your brain function is pretty delicious…

Seek Balance

Eat when you’re hungry (even if it’s not convenient), try not to skip meals, and learn to snack strategically. Our brains prefer that we maintain a steady blood sugar level. When we dip and spike our blood sugars throughout the day, we also dip and spike our mood. It’s kind of like being on a roller coaster. A sugary snack initially raises dopamine levels and elevates blood sugar (which our tired, nutrient-deprived, hungry brain was asking for). We feel better initially, but without the balance of fiber and protein, we usually plummet within about an hour. The brain gets cranky again and asks for carbohydrates, and the cycle continues. Eating snacks that balance proteins, fats, and carbs/sugars  (like fruit & nuts or nut butters, cheese and crackers, a mini-sandwich, hummus and veggies) will help keep your blood sugar stable so that you can avoid the “emotional roller coaster”. If you’re prone to depression and anxiety – this is particularly important!

Engage the Senses

If you have access to a garden, spend time in the green space, and harvest food if you can. Visit a local farmer’s market for fresh, seasonal ingredients and notice how you feel when you’re around abundant fruits and vegetables. When choosing veggies go for a rainbow of colors, then you’ll also be sure you’re getting all of the body balancing vitamins and phyto-chemicals too. Once you’ve chosen your ingredients, allow cooking and eating to become a mindful experience. Notice the textures of the greens in your hand, listen to the sizzle of the pan, smell the aroma wafting from the oven, and taste! Use your hands to chop, dice, tear, and mold. Fully experience yourself in the cooking process. This is where we get grounded, and it’s often through these embodied tasks that we may begin to find relief from pain and the effects of trauma.

Eat for Flavor, Beauty and Satisfaction

Eating for mental health is not just about “eating healthy”. It’s about learning to listen to your body, notice your hunger, and pay attention to your cravings. It’s about eating something because it tastes amazing and makes you feel good, never just because someone told you it was “healthy”. Your body has a lot of innate wisdom, when you pay attention. For gorgeous, flavor-filled recipes and inspiration as well as detailed information on the nutritional connection between food and mental health, I highly recommend Rebecca Katz’ “The Healthy Mind Cookbook”.


For those of you who like research, I’ve included a little snippet below, which is not exhaustive, but gives you a sense of where emerging research is heading. If you’d rather just dive in with the experiential approach, then think about what you’re craving today, decide on a dish, get some whole foods from the store or farmer’s market on your way home and make something simple. We’re fortunate to live in the bay area, where even on a budget you can find fresh, seasonal produce year round. If possible, cook and share your meal with someone else. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective! Touch, taste, enjoy, and then notice how you feel. If you have fears or anxieties about cooking, don’t despair. This may actually present a therapeutic opportunity, and I encourage you to talk with your therapist about these thoughts and feelings.

Disclaimer: The content contained in this post is not intended to and does not constitute medical advice. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Readers should always seek the advice of physicians or other qualified health providers with any questions regarding a medical condition. Readers should never disregard professional medical/psychiatric advice or delay in seeking it because of something on this site.

Tracy McGillis is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a former culinary-trained chef and nutrition educator. With a background in mind-body medicine, she works with clients of all ages to move toward a life of intention and authenticity, addressing issues like life transitions, anxiety/panic, depression, and ADHD.



Just this year, a study of 8500 adolescents showed that cooking ability was positively associated with better nutritional indicators, better mental health indicators, and stronger family connections. Utter et al. (2016) describes how adolescents reporting the greatest cooking abilities also reported lower levels of depressive symptoms and greater mental well-being.

From AIMS Project Integrated Pain Management Program

(Kim Cuddy, Program Director)

Taylor et al. (2010) describes how evolving understanding of “top-down” (mental process initiated) and “bottom-up” (sensory/body initiated) processes play an important role in mind-body medicine, as it has become increasingly evident that bidirectional interactions between the brain and peripheral tissues contribute to both mental and physical health.  Therapies directed toward addressing functional links between mind/brain and body are particularly effective in treating the range of symptoms associated with many chronic conditions, including chronic pain, PTSD, and depression.  Additionally, Fosha (2003) establishes that therapies informed by affective neuroscience utilize bottom-up, experiential approaches for the healing of complex trauma.  Gardening and cooking are activities that utilize both top-down and bottom-up processing, as well as bilateral (left to right brain) process – encouraging ‘grounding,’ embodying, and integration (Ogden, 2015).


Bair, M. J., Matthias, M.S., Nyland, K.A., Huffman, M.A., Stubbs, D.L., Kroenke, K. and Damush, T.M. (2009). Barriers and facilitators to chronic pain self-management: a qualitative study of primary care patients with comorbid musculoskeletal pain and depression.  Pain Medicine, 10: 1280-1290.

Fosha, D. (2003).  Dyadic regulation and experiential work with emotion and relatedness in trauma and disordered attachment.  Healing trauma: Attachment, trauma, the brain and the mind.  Vol 0 (221-281).  New York: W.W. Norton & Company

Ogden, P. (2015).  Sensorimotor psychotherapy: interventions for trauma and attachment.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company

Taylor AG1, Goehler LE, Galper DI, Innes KE, Bourguignon C. (2010).  Top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in mind-body medicine: development of an integrative framework for psychophysiological research.  Explore (NY). 2010 Jan-Feb;6(1):29-41. doi: 10.1016/j.explore.2009.10.004.

Utter J., Denny S., Lucassen M., and Dyson B. (2016). Adolescent Cooking Abilities and Behaviors: Associations with Nutrition and Emotional Well-Being. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2016 Jan; 48(1): 35-41.e1. doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2015.08.016. Epub 2015 Sep 26.

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