A True Story: Eating Habits, Mental Health, and Graduate School

    Posted on Monday, Jul 20, 2020
    There’s nothing like a solid quarantine-mandating, global-crisis-causing, panic-inducing pandemic to really make you start to notice little things that you do or do not do.

    Ever notice how, if you spend a little too much time with yourself and not enough time with other people, you start to notice your subtle habits? Things like when you drink coffee versus when you eat your first meal of the day, or how you breathe right when you’re about to fall asleep, or the number of times everyday you absent-mindedly check your phone. Well, after a lot (I mean, a LOT) of contemplation about myself and my little-habits during quarantine, I’ve made a discovery: my relationship with food is very directly associated with my mental state, which is very directly associated with how my work is going.

    It’s an interesting little web of things to all impact what and when I decide to eat. And it’s a lot more complicated than I ever would have thought! So I thought I would share this journey with all of you to encourage everyone to take note of what, when, and how they eat, and see if maybe you’ll learn as many things about yourself as I did about myself!

    I find it’s fairly easy to maintain a normal eating schedule when I’m around other people. I feel like this is true for a lot of us! If you see other people eating lunch around noon, you’re inclined to join them and eat lunch around noon. If your lab-mates talk about the killer breakfasts they had before work, maybe it makes you more interested in making breakfast in the morning.

    However, when it’s just you controlling when you eat, that’s when you learn when your body really needs food versus when it wants food. I’ve learned that if I don’t drink coffee in the morning, right when I get up, I’m basically a zombie for the rest of the day. But I can eat breakfast pretty much anytime between 7am and 12pm, which is a huge range, and I’m content either way.

    By contrast, my boyfriend must eat right when he gets up. As soon as it’s physically possible for him to consume food, he absolutely has to. It’s interesting to watch when your body first needs that jolt back into digestion, as well as how you feel depending on how you change this time.

    Relative to work, I found that if I had something serious that needed to get done in the morning, I had to just get up and do it. Drink my coffee, get right to work, and worry about food once the daunting task was over. I also found that when I allowed myself this strange habit of sometimes not eating breakfast until nearly “lunch-time”, I enjoyed my food a lot more. Things tasted better to me once I understood I had done something positive and productive with my morning.

    By contrast, if I didn’t eat in the morning much and I had something important to do in the afternoon, I would end up being seriously grumpy. Even if I was excited about my work, without the food to power me through what I was doing, I was completely disinterested and out of sorts.

    This disgruntled outlook would completely disappear if I snacked, though! Then I would bounce back like nothing was ever wrong, and carry on like normal.

    So throughout the day I think, for me, it was important to map out my meals relative to the amount of work I had to do and the seriousness of the tasks at my hands. The longer, bigger, more-scary a task was, the more food I needed to get through it, with the exception of early mornings.

    To some, this might all sound terribly intuitive. But I think it’s one thing to think it, and another thing to do it. We are all taught about eating three meals a day and snacking when we get hungry and trying not to eat, say, exclusively ice cream for dinner, but that certainly doesn’t mean that is always what we do.
    It also doesn’t mean that is what we have to do. I’ve learned that I’m a snack-based or small-meal-based person, I would rather eat lots of small things in a day than three big meals. Another habit that my boyfriend is the opposite in, he eats his three big meals a day and he’s completely satisfied!

    So really I want to invite everyone who reads this to think about their food. Think about what you eat, when, and why, and your food will become less of something you have to think about or have to prepare, and more of something you do to celebrate yourself and care for yourself. Because really, food is about self-care and self-love, and remembering everyday that no matter how you want to eat, you are allowed to have those habits and those preferences that keep you happy. The happier you are, the more productive you are, and the more quality work you’ll be able to produce.

    ---Serina Taluja
    Serina Taluja is doctoral student in the Genetics program.

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