"Man is what he eats."
First published in an essay in 1863, this statement by German philosopher Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach has become the mantra of modern-day fitness and nutrition gurus in describing the effect that food has on your body: Eat healthy foods, become physically healthy. But your dietary habits can affect far more than your physical self -- they can make or break your self-esteem.
First, Seek Pleasure
What excites you? Makes you laugh or smile? When is the last time you "played"? You might not be accustomed to considering these things in the context of your diet and physical health, but if you're drawing blanks in answering these questions, it's time to make a change -- for your body as well as your mind.
In her book "The Emotional Energy Factor: The Secrets High-Energy People Use to Beat Emotional Fatigue," psychotherapist Mira Kirshenbaum explores a number of findings regarding energy and emotional fulfillment. After surveying nutritionists, endocrinologists and sports medicine experts, she concluded that 70 percent of a person's total energy is related to emotions. Feeding your emotional self with activities, relationships and practices you enjoy is more important than any other factor in promoting energy and a sense of well-being.
Your diet should promote pleasure as well. Savoring your food, dining with loved ones and creating visually pleasing dishes all promote physical health, a sense of gratitude and self-esteem, according to Stanley J. Gross, a psychologist and author of "Pathways to Lasting Self-Esteem." If you're in the beginning stages of increasing your self-esteem, Gross suggests setting an unusual goal: developing the ability to experience pleasure when you desire it. Contemplating the pleasure of food before each meal is a first step.
Don't Let "Diet" Be a Verb
As you seek to improve your emotional and physical health related to food, consider the words you use to describe your quest. Are you eating a healthy diet -- or are you dieting?
Dieting typically promotes deprivation -- of your favorite foods, entire nutrient groups or sufficient amounts of calories -- and can pose serious damage to your sense of self-worth. Regardless of well-publicized findings that dieting rarely leads to long-term success and may pose risks, Americans spend more than $40 billion annually on dieting and dieting-related products.
"Unfortunately, most women and many men base their self-value on how they look and what they weigh," said eating disorder specialist and registered dietitian Ellen Reiss-Goldfarb. "One of the most important things I tell people is to avoid deprivation. It leads to disordered thinking and, possibly, bingeing."
Consuming too few calories also forces your body into starvation mode -- a condition in which your body reserves fat and your metabolism slows down. Severely limiting carbohydrates increases your risk for depressive moods and foggy thinking, as well as less serious but socially isolating conditions such as bad breath.
A more effective approach, according to Reiss-Goldfarb, involves eating primarily healthy foods and incorporating modest amounts of pleasurable, or "treat," foods. Having white bread, pizza or dessert on occasion can help prevent food cravings and fixation on foods you "can't" have -- a fixation that is the perfect setup for emotional distress and overeating. Tell yourself you're worthy of healthy foods but also have the right to enjoy occasional indulgences.
Breakfast for a Better Life
Many people mistakenly think that skipping breakfast is a sign of self-control, Gross says in "Pathways to Lasting Self-Esteem." But eating poorly or too little during morning hours often leads to low blood sugar, moodiness, excessive hunger and overeating. A healthy, balanced breakfast, on the other hand, jump-starts your metabolism, boosts your energy, helps you think clearly and provides a prime opportunity for self-nurturing.
Gross says breakfast should contain complex carbohydrates, high-quality protein and healthy fat. Replace your typical pastry, latte or lack of breakfast, for example, with old-fashioned oatmeal topped with low-fat yogurt, fresh fruit and toasted almonds.
Starting each day with self-care may strengthen your willingness to care for yourself the remainder of the day. A healthy breakfast routine may also help you reach or maintain a healthy body weight -- another factor that will enhance your self-esteem.
Take Aim at Toxins
Do specific foods trigger poor self-esteem? Probably not. Eating a generally unhealthy diet rich in added sugars, saturated fat and preservatives, however, is unlikely to fuel positivity. Every meal and snack provides an opportunity to make healthy or unhealthy choices and to seek pleasure or not. What you choose does make a difference.
Consider the balance of two vital nutrients in the typical American diet: omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids. While both are essential to human health, Americans tend to consume excessive amounts of omega-6 and too little omega-3. High dietary levels of omega-6 fatty acids increase inflammation and may dampen hormonal levels and moods. Most omega-6 fats are found in vegetable oils -- such as safflower, corn and sunflower -- and in meat.
"I'm a big fan of fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids," Reiss-Goldfarb said. Eating more fish, flaxseed, walnuts and canola oil, she said, may help relieve depression, hormonal imbalances and infertility.
By eating primarily fresh, whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, you are taking care of your body -- a practice known to bolster self-esteem. Complex carbohydrates also boost production of feel-good brain chemicals, such as serotonin.
Reach Out to Rise Up
It's easy to become so focused on the internal aspects of physical and emotional health that you neglect external factors such as support from others -- and that could be a big mistake. Whether you turn to your spouse, your best friend or a therapist, emotional support is important for making lasting, healthy changes in your diet and self-esteem.
J. Scott Shonka, a personal trainer and lead drill instructor at Extreme Bootcamp in Santa Monica, California, offers succinct advice: Choose your friends wisely. "Eat and exercise with a friend with similar goals who cheers you on," he advised. "Anyone who puts you down is bad news."
Addressing underlying emotional issues before or while making dietary changes is also important. If you carry excess body weight, diet compulsively, have disordered attitudes about your body and food or frequently turn to food to cope with emotional stress, seek therapy that addresses your emotional and behavioral health.
By: August McLaughlin
Photo Credit: Getty Images