Food is generally accepted to be important to the continuation of the concept that is life. Everyone needs nutrition, in some form or another, but in instances like mental illness, food can take on a greater significance.
For what it’s worth, Mr. Juniper’s mental ill health hasn’t included eating disorders. That doesn’t, however, mean food hasn’t been a significant issue for him. A little like sleep, food is something that often comes up during psychiatry and therapy appointments. This isn’t professionals angling for recipe suggestions, but the acknowledgement that mental illness affects behaviour and the body as a whole.
Another “for what it’s worth” moment: in this instance, I’m using “diet” in the sense of simply what a person’s consuming, rather than in reference to a specific nutritional plan.
When it comes to diet, I am believer in the idea of a healthier body may mean a healthier mind. By this, I don’t mean that eating red onions picked during the first full moon of summer with an accompaniment of salmon caught by fair maidens is going to cure mental illness. Though if people want to go down that route, that’s up to them. What I mean is that the brain is a rather important part of the body and needs good nourishment, just like the rest of the body. And also that if the body is functioning a little better, it gives the brain a little breathing space.
Aeons ago, when Mr. Juniper and I first met, Mr. Juniper had a horrible diet. There were reasons for this, though. A considerable number of which loosely fall under the self-neglect aspect of mental illness. In short: with everything else that was going on in his head, he just didn’t particularly care about food. He was on his own, too, so there was no one to support him in making better choices for himself.
As our relationship progressed, food became more than just something grabbed at train stations as we travelled, or a meal thrown together late at night.
Many of my attitudes towards food come from my upbringing. My parents weren’t fanatical about food and there were no “extremes” in terms of how food was regarded. What my parents did instil in me was to look at what was in food and to be aware of what that meant. Because of health concerns in my family, I was also brought up to be aware of the impact food can have on the body. This lead me to take in interest in what food can do, and to look at research when it comes up. To be fair, this isn’t something I take to the level of obsession, so much as a mild interest.
One of the most important factors about Mr. Juniper’s diet is that change has taken time, and it certainly isn’t something that’s been forced on him. Changes are something we take the time to discuss. Apart from a few exceptions, changes have also be subject to a trial period. That’s not to say there’s a set period of six weeks, for instance, during which we try a change but that we give a change a reasonable chance.
Over the past year, Mr. Juniper has also developed a bowel disorder. So as well as trying to have a diet that’s helpful to Mr. Juniper’s brain and body, his diet has also had to adjust to the bowel disorder, too.
Another important point: changes to Mr. Juniper’s diet are ones that I partook in too, or already did.
The initial changes to Mr. Juniper’s diet were to cut out caffeine and alcohol. Alcohol was a no-brainer ““ it’s something that really shouldn’t be had with medication, and even without medication, alcohol isn’t generally beneficial to mental well-being. I don’t drink alcohol, so there certainly wasn’t any “temptation” of sorts for Mr. Juniper. The change did help and after a time, once Mr. Juniper was happy that not having alcohol was beneficial for him, he brought up the idea of having a small amount of alcohol once ever few weeks. We came to a compromise, and it works. He avoids alcohol during particularly difficult periods and only has beer with a low alcohol volume. With caffeine, the change was initially to reduce how much coffee he was having. Like with alcohol, coffee is something I don’t drink.
With drinks, cutting out and reducing alcohol and coffee meant that Mr. Juniper had to replace them with something. Water is definitely one of the great fluids to have, but in addition to drinking more water, Mr. Juniper also joined me in enjoying herbal teas. When on medication, anything herbal needs a little consideration. Mr. Juniper has come to really enjoy herbal teas, though, especially those which help his bowel disorder.
In what I’m loosely classifying as “junk” food, high sugar and highly processed drinks took a hit, too. Mr. Juniper is already ingesting a lot of relatively toxic substances in the form of medication, his body doesn’t need the additional hits from heavily processed food. Two of the main culprits in this were “energy” drinks and “soft” drinks. They tend to be full of some heavily processed combination of caffeine, sugar, and additives. All things that are, generally, unnecessary. In terms of junk food (rather than drinks), there’s nothing particularly wrong with having sugary or fatty foods, but it’s case of how much, and what’s in them. Junk food was also something that wasn’t cut out, but reduced and assessed. By “assessed” I simply mean taking the time to look at the ingredients, and looking for food with a simple recipe that consists of “real” food stuffs.
One of my issues with sugar, in particular, is in a similar vein to caffeine. Given Mr. Juniper struggles as it is with his moods, changes in sugar and caffeine consumption were, in part, about reducing another factor that can contribute to mood changes.
To some people, I can appreciate that our approach to food may seem a little extreme, but for us it’s been a progression and not something done on a whim either. And as is so often the case with illness, an approach which encompasses the person as a whole is often a good route. For us, food is simply a part of that approach.