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Nutrients fuel the body and brain's energy needs. This fuel allows humans to function and flourish—to breathe, to speak, to play, to learn, and to reproduce.

Humans evolved under very different circumstances than today; sustenance was often in short supply, and it was advantageous to snatch up sugars and fats that could provide a boost of energy.

These evolutionary roots are at odds with the modern world, in which food is, in many places, overabundant. Cravings can be difficult to control. Rules can be difficult to maintain.

Food also carries cultural, social, and economic weight. Holidays and gatherings, for example, highlight food as the main event, which can change the meaning of a meal.

Food can elicit an array of psychological challenges, often related to weight management, eating disorders, and body image. Yet there are numerous ways to address these challenges and cultivate a healthy lifestyle.

Healthy Approaches to Diet and Weight Management

Many people struggle with diet and weight management at times. But this relationship isn’t set in stone—there are always ways to change and improve it.

Changing that relationship and cultivating a healthy lifestyle looks different for everyone. Some may reframe the idea of a diet entirely and identify different ways to adopt sustainable change. Others may need to unlearn old beliefs and listen more closely to their body. Still others may develop skills to identify and cope with difficult emotions that don’t involve food.

Do diets work?

Unfortunately, diets rarely lead to permanent weight loss. An overview of commercial programs found that participants typically regained the weight they lost relatively quickly. Even in studies of medically supervised low-calorie diets, patients who succeeded in losing 15 to 25 percent of their body weight tended to be the exception, and many regained that weight fairly quickly.

Despite these trends, diets and commercial weight loss programs are still pervasive. Reasons for this include that the body quickly adapts to changes in caloric intake, weight loss programs tend to exaggerate their claims, and the media often depicts thinness as an essential part of attractiveness.

Does willpower exist?

Psychologists previously believed that willpower was finite, that it wore thin the more people resisted a tempting treat, for example. But new, robust research has called that concept into question, finding little evidence that ego depletion exists.

Struggles of Diet, Weight, and Body Image
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A good diet contributes to optimal health, but not everyone has a positive relationship with food. Some people battle with their plate, with body image challenges and obsessions joining the fight.

The act of eating is often rife with strong emotions like boredom, stress, and guilt. Looking for relief, people may gradually adopt unhealthy patterns, such as a cycle of on-and-off, short-term dieting, emotional eating, or disordered eating.

What causes emotional eating?

Emotional eating is when people eat in order to manage difficult emotions rather than to satisfy hunger. Feelings of stress, boredom, depression, shame, anger, and aggression can all drive emotional eating, and people can even come to associate eating with a particular emotion. Forms of therapy such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can help people learn to identify and change patterns of emotional eating and develop skills to cope with their emotions in healthy ways.

Can people be addicted to food?

The concept of food addiction has been under debate in the field, and it is not a diagnosis in the DSM-5. But the diagnosis of Binge-Eating Disorder involves compulsive overeating. Binges occur when people eat an abnormally large amount of food in a contained time period, accompanied by the feeling of being unable to control themselves. People may eat abnormally fast, until they’re uncomfortably full, and experience feelings of shame and distress.

For more, see Binge Eating Disorder.

The Best Foods for the Brain

A healthy brain is fed by a balanced diet and a variety of nutrients. But a few foods provide a special boost.

Fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help build, sustain, and repair brain cells, so salmon, mackerel, tuna and others provide important nutrients. Antioxidants protect the brain from oxidative stress and reduce inflammation. Leafy greens including spinach, kale, and broccoli, as well as berries such as strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries all trigger or provide plenty of antioxidants.

Nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, and sunflower seeds are rich in both omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Whole grains like barley and legumes like peanuts contain vitamin E. Another vitamin implicated in brain health is vitamin B, which can be found in eggs and dairy products.

Through omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins, these foods play a role in maintaining memory and concentration as well as staving off cognitive decline, stroke, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The Mediterranean diet is one of the most proven options; research suggests that the diet protects cognitive abilities and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and overall mortality. It’s no surprise why: The diet prioritizes nearly all of the foods above, including vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and olive oil.

What is nutritional psychiatry?

Nutritional psychiatry is a field of study devoted to exploring how food and supplements can affect brain health and potentially treat mental disorders. Nutritional psychiatry asks questions such as how to create a healthy diet, which foods could be added or removed from a diet to benefit mental health, and the relationship between the microbiome and mental illness.

Can certain foods support memory and cognition?

Plant-based diets are neurologically protective, research suggests, and keep the aging brain youthful. Vegetables, fruits, nuts, and beans are high in antioxidants, which combat oxidative stress, protect the brain from memory decline, and support psychological well-being.

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