The Surprising Benefits of Loving Yourself First

Updated By Allie Cuno on March 31, 2020

I used to think of the term “self-love” as another word for “selfishness.” After all, isn’t self-love all about being self-centered? I remember my first airline flight and my surprise when the attendant demonstrated the process of putting the mask on yourself before putting it on your child. It took only a second’s thought to realize that made sense. Likewise, I came to realize that when we tend to our own needs—more specifically our mental, physical, and emotional health—first is when we are in the best shape to uplift others along life’s journey.

That doesn’t mean we must be in perfect mental, physical, and emotional condition before reaching outside ourselves to others. But it does mean we should make a concerted effort to carve out time for our own wellbeing, while attending to the wellbeing of others.

Wouldn’t it be exhilarating to feel refreshed, to have more energy and drive to enrich our lives as well as that of others? The tough question is, how do we get there? The internet has a plethora of excellent ideas on improving oneself—get more sleep, eliminate toxic people in your life, get a pet, declutter, and meditate to name a few. They are all noteworthy and worth exploring. However, I am writing an article not a book, so I chose to focus on one area that could have a significant effect on our emotional and physical state. It’s something we all know and love ... food.

The Relationship between Food and Mental Health

“Eating healthy” means many things to many people. Some believe eating meat and fat is the way to health while others swear by a whole food, plant-based diet. While opinions vary, most will agree with the following statement: eating more fresh fruit and veggies improves health; consuming excess sugar, sodas, and other processed, chemically-laden foods don’t.1

Food became an intriguing study for me when recently I decided to eat healthier. After a week of healthy fixins, I experienced something foreign—I felt really happy! As in, “Has someone been slipping antidepressants into my food?” happy. Sure, I was expecting more energy, more snap in my step, but joyfulness?

Several research studies back up this mental phenomenon. One Australian study found that those who switched from eating almost no fruit and veggies to eating eight portions a day experienced an increase in life satisfaction equivalent to what an unemployed individual feels after finding a job.2 “Eating fruit and vegetables apparently boosts our happiness far more quickly than it improves human health,” states study co-author Redzo Mujcic, a health economics research fellow at the University of Queensland. He continues, “There is a psychological payoff now from fruit and vegetables, not just a lower health risk decades later.” (italics added)2

Another study finds that, surprisingly, a healthy diet can be more effective for treating depression than prescription medications. Dr. Maxine Barish-Wreden, M.D., an integrative medicine physician with Sutter Medical Foundation states, “Studies have shown a reduction in depression of 40 to 60 percent when people are eating the right foods, which is a better outcome than most drugs.”3

Research has even established that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have a lower incidence of mental disorders in general, including lower rates of depression, perceived stress, and negative mood.4 The findings also list the top 10 raw foods related to better mental health: carrots, bananas, apples, dark leafy greens like spinach, grapefruit, lettuces, citrus fruits, fresh berries, cucumber, and kiwifruit.4

These and other findings are fueling more studies into the relationship between food and emotional health. It’s a hot, new research topic. Stay tuned.

But knowing why we should eat healthier doesn’t always translate into actually eating healthier. Rachell Mahoney, in her article, Self-Love Changed My Relationship with Fitness and Food, recommends that you start small in making healthy changes. She started by taking a walk on her lunch hour. She made working out her midday reward and mental break from work, and came back to her desk relaxed and energized.5 What baby step could you make? Adding a glass of water a day? Or an additional fruit or salad? The possibilities are endless, and it’s customized to you!

Everybody’s different so your experience eating from nature’s bounty may be different from mine. But if you want to be your best so you can give your best in life, you may want to reach for the broccoli first. It’s worth a try.

Allie Cuno is a special interest writer at Center for Excellence in Higher Education (CEHE).

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