Depression, Nutrition and Shortcuts to Taking Care of Your Dietary Needs

The process of my last major depressive episode involved me dropping weight at a very unhealthy pace (then conversely gaining it all back at an equally unhealthy pace). The reality was I stopped taking care of myself and the biggest and fastest slide was in my diet. I rarely ate and when I did it was often food that wasn’t particularly good for me. In the end it made an already bad problem that much worse and harder to get out of.

I still battle with depression daily but I try to make a few shortcut choices in cooking to help with the days where motivation is a chore. While it sounds fancy, sous vide cooking is nothing more than a water-bath slow cooking method to keep your food at an exact temperature for as long as needed. This means that you can get very accurately cooked steak or very tender pork as an example. I personally use an Anova 800W sous vide to make steak, chicken and pork dishes. Quickly cooling and freezing some of the meals means you can warm up the item and it will have already been ‘pre cooked’. As an example, below is a basic use for chicken breasts.

Cook Once, Eat Five Times: Five Easy Sous Vide Chicken Breast Recipes

When I’m feeling like rewarding myself, I personally prefer steaks. The upshot to using a sous vide however is that while the steak can be cooked to just the right doneness there’s another benefit, being able to use cheaper cuts of meat. You don’t need to splurge for the full rib eye, a flank steak done right can be almost as tender. Buy a few thick steaks from your local Costcos or Sam Club and the price comes down even further.

Steak for one

Besides protein, I try to find vegetable dishes to cook that can last. One of the easiest dishes to pair with any kind of protein is ratatouille. Sure ok if you watched the Disney animated movie you might think “but that’s too fancy”. You don’t need to be as fancy. Ratatouille is fundamentally a ‘poor mans vegetable stew’.

http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/ratatouille-12164

So why put all that effort up front? Ratatouille goes well with a lot of meats and keeps for several days in the fridge. Make a large batch and you don’t have to worry about thinking “what’s for veggies” at the end of the day.

The weekend’s are always hard but if you’re able to get yourself motivated to cook at least once in the week, it will help you for the remainder of the work week when things may be even harder. It sounds like a massive hurdle and I admit it isn’t easy, but eating fast food constantly or dosing up on canned, instant meals high in sodium and low in other essential vitamins doesn’t help you body. We often think of depression as being strictly ‘mental’ but part of that is still tied to our overall health.  Autoimmune system, vitamin and mineral levels all contribute to neuroplasticity. While they aren’t a total cure all, they can help you get out of the low-points a bit easier. It’s the same logic as engaging in exercise to improve your health. Personally I find getting out and working out harder than cooking a healthy meal. Depression takes many tools to deal with it, but finding efficient ways of going about it can help.

 

Food Tips for Those Struggling with Depression — Overnight Oats

I’ll be totally candid, while I can cook and it’s a source of fun for me, the reality is I am TERRIBLE at breakfast. Not that I can’t make things for breakfast, rather I am very bad about consistently getting up and finding the motivation to actually make something.

If you’re like me, depression often zaps my motivation from the moment I wake up. While I’ve taken to things like pour-over coffee as a routine to help jump start me, I have neglected the whole ‘start the day with a good breakfast’. To help address that I’ve taken to trying out ‘overnight oats’. The idea sounds weird I admit.

http://wholefully.com/2016/03/07/8-classic-overnight-oats-recipes-you-should-try/

At its core overnight oats are a mix of old fashioned steel cut oats, chia seeds, flax and other fruits that you place in a jar, add milk and allow to sit overnight. In the morning you no longer have to drag yourself through the kitchen trying to make a hot meal, you unscrew that lid and nom away.

I’ve tried a few variations of the above linked recipes and they aren’t bad. Might not be something you want to do EVERY night (cause let’s be honest oatmeal every morning gets tiring) but it’s a nice alternative. I’m hoping that between this and homemade yogurt I’ll be able to at least keep up the gut-health and conversely that helps stave off the pounds and improves mood regulation.

If you’ve had difficulties in caring for yourself in the morning I encourage you to look into this as an alternative to other fast food or grab and go breakfast options.

Projects and New Years Goals 2017

This past year isn’t one that I’d want to really remember. My divorce was finalized, I had to face the reality of my battle withe depression. Friends were let go, some chose to leave. Over time I know I have to try to rebuild. Investing in the ‘adult’ things that are needed has always been a tricky thing to me.

As 2016 closed I found myself buying some furniture to really redo the bedroom I currently have. It was a bit weird, the last time I really had to factor in furniture I was moving in with my new wife.

To keep myself busy over the New Years weekend I decided to try my hand at a memphis dry rub rib. As I live in a condo however there was an obvious wrinkle… no smoker.

The answer instead was to cook the ribs sous vide.

Split-rack of ribs in sous vide bathTwelve hours in the water bath helped to keep the meat soft and moist and a 40 minute finish in the oven lead to the end product.

Bark formed on rib

In the end the particular recipe that was used was a bit overly dry and admittedly I think the ribs would have retained more moisture with a good quality brine before seasoning and sealing the bag.

Cut and plated

Still though, giving an option to cooking ribs indoors w/o the need for a smoker was handy. The project kept me from dwelling on the past year and focused on a task with a viable pay off (om nom nom).

Cooking has been one of the few stress relief options I’ve had and trying to cook somewhat healthier has provided a challenge. I hope that I am able to continue my culinary therapy along with my other courses of action to help find a balance between moving forward and addressing my depression.

Close Friends and Coffee

My circle of friends shrank exponentially following my divorce and depression diagnosis. A good portion of it was a direct decision by me to cut ties where I felt the conflict of friendships was too high. I’m sure some felt this was just me giving up, but sometimes you have to come to a decision to take yourself out of a situation where your mental health comes at the cost of trying to act like nothing has changed.

Having said that, I still maintain a small group of friends that I still interact with, some local, some from far away (ish). I’ve never really been a social butterfly, I’ve always felt that it wasn’t the proximity of your friends or how many of them you had, it’s the closeness of them that counted the most. I would gladly rather have ten tried and true friends than a hundred trivial ones.

One of my friends, I’ll call her M, was kind enough of to send me a care package.

New brew to try
New brew to try

The manual labor of doing a pour-over (or hand-pour) coffee has been a coping tool for me. It’s that kick start of physical activity to get my blood moving and to get my mind focusing on something other than nightmares or depressive thoughts. I grind my coffee by hand so it’s a whole experience. Gone are the days of a push button Keurig for me. Call it coffee snobbery if you want, for me it’s a way of getting active, even if only in a small measure. What’s nice though is that I found ways to gradually expand from my coffee habit to things like making desserts (Coffee Panna Cotta — Dwallops of Happy Panna Cotta)

If you’re faced with the same challenges as I’ve been.  Try to find something even if it’s small. Every little bit helps if it gets you up and moving. It’s painful and easy to get trapped by depression and the physical ‘drag’ that entails. Small things can help in the long term, even if they don’t seem like it at first.

 

Pancakes for One

I woke up on Labor day with no sense of wanting to do anything. I had next to no motivation, no desire to get out there and experience a ‘holiday’. People smiling, the muggy weather, none of it made me feel particularly like going out. So I found myself doing something I haven’t done in a while, making a breakfast for one. Usually my breakfast is pretty plain, some yogurt, maybe warming a left over or two. I rarely have motivation for much else.

I used to enjoy cooking for my ex-wife and her father. It made me feel like I had a place in their home. These days home seems like a weird thing for me to say. I don’t really feel like I’m home here either in my condo. There was a time I would cook to relieve stress, to eat with a purpose, now though it’s just for the sake of not eating badly. I hope that in the future I can find that fire again and want to cook for the joy of cooking but until then, it’s just pancakes for one.

 

The Foods of Depression

OK this will be a bit of an off the wall post stemming from a few random conversations I saw on reddit/r/depression.  For folks who have never experienced clinical depression it might be hard to imagine the severity of motivation loss. Someone raised the question, what foods do you try to cook when you literally don’t even want to crawl out of bed. This got me thinking since cooking is one of the other coping tools I’ve used to try to keep myself active.

So in no particular order here were some of the foods I realized I cooked often when I experienced the most severe episodes of depression.

Pancakes w/fruit — Usually blueberries or bananas. Probably as it’s a comfort food, and easy to make. Go easy on the syrup and other heavy sugars and it’s not terrible to make this while depressed.

Somen/Cold Saimin — Sitting around waiting for something to boil or warm up becomes a chore in itself so I often cooked cold, almost ready to serve dishes. Boil noodles ahead of time, chop your ingredients and lunch/dinner becomes less daunting a task.

Spaghetti — This one is a bit of a mixed bag. The actual process of making it can be involved (semi home made pasta sauce etc) but using a food sealer to create ready to boil servings of pasta and some pre-cooked noodles cuts down on the dinner time waiting and it’s a fun comfort food.

Cucumbers/Carrots/Beets/Lettuce —  Always on hand. I’ll be open and admit that when my depression is at its worst I have a really hard time eating veggies and fruits so I’ve always tried to keep vegetables that I can eat raw or throw into a quick salad.  Keep one or two good dressings and it gets a little easier to deal with meal time and healthy eating.

Bad things I still wound up eating, things I’d avoid however, heavy sugars, baked goods, things with a lot of sodium. It’s really easy to start drowning yourself in sugary things and canned foods but with my hypertension it’s something I had to really be aware of.  A lot of those things gave me headaches or kept me up at night.