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Volume 38, No. 2

Self-Esteem: The Nutrition Connection

To have self-esteem, to feel good about oneself, is a lifelong need and goal from infancy through old age. Its beginnings are reflected in the mutually pleasurable smile between mother and infant, as it is manifested in the 50-year old who has just mastered her new computer. Self-esteem is an essential nutrient, not only to function adequately, but with vigor and enthusiasm. Conversely, anyone with an emotional, behavior, or learning difficulty has a related problem with self-esteem.

What are the sources of self-esteem? Self-esteem begins with our bodies. Since mind and body are one entity, the smooth, interrelated functioning of our body parts and our brain chemistry provide the foundation for an inherent sense of wellness. Naturally, to add to this foundation, infants and children require constant nurturing and love to build trust, security, and a sense of confident expectations. Throughout our adult life as well, we need varying degrees of feedback and support to experience pleasure and mastery over our bodies, emotions, and the world around us. A growing number of mental health professionals consider the main task of all developmental stages throughout the life span to be maintenance of a cohesive sense of self in tandem with appropriate self-esteem.

As a psychotherapist, I have been concerned with these issues for many years. However, since I discovered five years ago that I have food and chemical sensitivities, my understanding and approach both personally and professionally have been modified dramatically. My own learning and experiences put a high priority on investigating nutrition, chemicals, and the total environment, as well as emotional factors.

Personally, for example, I now know that wheat makes my brain functioning, mood, and energy level take a nosedive; sugar makes me "hyper" and irritable, and so on. I recall several years before diagnosis when I felt extremely inadequate, helpless, and depressed when, for no apparent reason, I could not think or communicate clearly. How much more devastating for the child experiencing those feelings, possibly chronically, whose personality and sense of self are in the process of formation! We know that children who feel inner confusion and lack of control develop a variety of maladaptive behaviors in an effort to compensate for their inadequate feelings. These can range from clowning and/or aggression to quietly giving up. In addition, parents’ reaction to feeling helpless, frustrated, and angered by their child’s behavior increases the vicious cycle. Adults are not immune from these reactions. In my experience, many people who became aware of food and chemical reactions as adults realize in retrospect that they have had undiagnosed lifelong symptoms. These were often subtle, but profoundly affected their feelings about themselves.

As concerned, aware adults and in our role as parents we can be on the lookout for clues and patterns in the total environment, ideally to prevent problems, or for some intervention if indicated. The child who acts up at mealtimes or at specific times in school is providing clues to pursue. I was amazed when a five-year old told me: "I feel weird and get bad," whenever he has the kindergarten treat, usually consisting of cookies. That kind of connection is not usually made so clearly for us. The bright college student failing freshman year was seen by the student health psychiatrist, who recommended anti-depressant medication. However, on closer examination, she was dealing with not only emotional stress, but she was also having severe reactions to nightly 1:00 AM pizzas and an escalation of junk food. In these examples, as with many others where the mind-body connection is not functioning properly, self-esteem is a central problem.

As the evidence of the connection between nutrition and psychological functioning increases constantly, NOHA provides a vital leadership role in educating us all about the far-reaching impact of nutrition on our total functioning. A 1985 Newsweek article was titled "The Food – Mood Link: New Studies Explore How Diet Affects Our Feelings." In terms of the experiences I describe here, I would expand that title to "The Food – Mood – Self-Esteem Link."


by Shirley W. Kaplan, MA

Article from NOHA* NEWS, Winter 1987

*The American Nutrition Association was formerly known as the Nutrition for Optimal Health Association [NOHA].

For informational purposes only - not intended as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, nor an endorsement by the American Nutrition Association®. Use permitted for non-profit and non-commercial uses or by healthcare professionals in their practice, with attribution to www.AmericanNutritionAssociation.org. Other use only with written ANA℠ permission. Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ANA℠. Works by a listed author subject to copyrights as marked. © 2010 ANA℠