What People Eat When They’re Too Sad to Function
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, Alexandra-Marie Figueroa, 26, was living in Boston and working at Amnesty USA. Following the hurricane’s aftermath, she says, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she needed to be back on the island with her family.
But doing so meant making certain sacrifices.
“When I moved back, it meant actively giving up a lifestyle full of privileges,” she says. “I had access to fresh foods and mobility, and paying for groceries was not an issue [in Boston]. I have a very restrictive diet because of food intolerances, and post-Maria Puerto Rico has made healthy eating even harder.”
However, access to fresher food isn’t the only thing making it difficult for Figueroa to eat a full meal most days. Between juggling a full-time job with law school and dealing with her grandfather’s imminent death, she says she’s found it difficult to take care of her mental health, which in turn makes it harder to feed herself.
“I’ve been running on Vienna canned sausages for the past week,” she says. “I realized it was becoming a problem when a friend found a single can in the back of my car, but I cannot do anything else but eat those while I deal at the moment.”
“When I'm high functioning, I'm always in the kitchen. I love to try new recipes,” she says. “When I'm deep in depression, I hardly think anything for myself is worth it.”
She isn’t alone in turning to low-effort meals when her mental health suffers. It’s a concept commonly referred to as “depression meals,” or meals people eat when their mental health makes it too taxing to cook. It’s something people who’ve experienced depression have discussed on social media, and deep Reddit threads, about what they eat when they feel like they just can’t. There’s even a Depression Meals Bingo meme, with things like “ramen noodles not fully cooked through” and “microwavable children’s food” filling in the squares, plus a “forgetting to eat free space,” a painful joke at how even basic self-care can go by the wayside when you’re struggling. While many of us can relate to the feeling of being too tired to do anything more than heat up frozen mac and cheese at the end of the day, depression meals happen when cooking — and any kind of self-care — feels impossible and even pointless.
Brooke Anderson, a 28-year-old living in Los Angeles, says pizza rolls have been her go-to when she’s feeling down ever since she had to start cooking for herself in college. Diagnosed with depression when she was 15, Anderson says she often finds herself neglecting food when she’s feeling low because depression makes it hard to put time into taking care of herself.
“It’s the same reason we don’t want to do our makeup or exercise,” she says. “You lose energy and focus and are literally just going through the motions, so with food, if you’re not going to enjoy it, you just want to make it and eat it as quickly as possible so you can get it over with and go back to [other] depressive actions; in my case, sleep.” So she places the freezer food on a paper towel and microwaves it, eats just for the sole purpose of not starving, and goes straight back to bed.
According to the MayoClinic, low energy and a lack of focus are common symptoms for the estimated 16 million adults in the U.S. who experience depression — as are changes in appetite, and loss of interest in normal activities.
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“Most things feel daunting when you have depression, like brushing your teeth or even getting out of bed,” says Joy Bradford, PhD, an Atlanta-based psychologist who runs the podcast Therapy for Black Girls. “Everything feels like it is requiring you to exert more energy than is typical, so taking care of yourself feels more daunting. And because the added symptom can be a decreased appetite, if you don’t feel like eating, and you don’t feel like moving to do anything, then you just won’t.”
Still, you don’t have to have a diagnosed depressive disorder to be familiar with depression meals. Dr. Bradford says there’s a spectrum of what can be considered depression, from a major depressive disorder to a period of depressive symptoms, which you can experience as a one-off, while grieving someone’s death, or in the aftermath of a breakup, for example.
“You can see depressive symptoms trigger for a lot of reasons, and they might not always meet the qualifications of having a full-blown diagnosis,” she says.
This can manifest itself in a person finding it extra hard to keep groceries stocked for a week or so; or retreating from friends and family for a while, but the feelings pass. A doctor can help work out potential treatment for phases like these — even if they feel sporadic and short — whether that’s medication, talk therapy, or both. Being too sad or wrung-out to eat shouldn't be accepted as a normal part of life, and being unable to prioritize your own health even enough to make sure you're eating is a red flag.
Just as people experience depression in different ways, how they feel about food during a depressive phase can vary wildly, too. Some find preparing a meal — even something bare-bones — to be therapeutic.
Maria Del Russo, a writer in New York City (who has written for InStyle), says that although she hasn’t been diagnosed with depression, she is prone to “depressive periods,” for which she goes to therapy. She says cooking is one of her coping mechanisms for these periods, though getting up to do it can be difficult.
“Caring for myself is admitting that something is wrong, and I think that in my most depressed moments, I'm trying to ignore everything that's wrong with me,” she says.
Del Russo says her depression meal — pasta with a special tomato sauce —reminds her of home, where her mother would cook big bowls of pasta to make her feel better. Now, preparing it for herself is part of what makes it feel so good.
“Once I get into the groove of cooking, I start to feel better because I am doing something just for myself,” she says. “It’s nourishing and makes me feel like I'm being cared for. Just this time, I'm caring for myself.” Of course, what works for her won't for everyone — and plenty of people experience depression symptoms so severely they can't just get into the groove of cooking. But finding something, anything, to sustain during the hard times is important.
No matter what your brain says, you have to eat — even if all you can manage is a few slices of buttered toast. For patients experiencing loss in appetite or not having enough energy for a meal, Dr. Bradford usually recommends smoothies, or Ensure or Boost shakes that can provide nutrients in a low-lift way.
Having easy-access food items like this on hand for times when you're too sad, or too stressed, or too busy to eat something more involved is a good hack for making sure you stay fed. But when it feels like there's something bigger going on with your mental health, self-care may mean making a call, rather than that go-to meal.