After the festive season, we embark on juice cleanses and swear off alcohol forever — but our mental health can go overlooked. Vogue sits down with chef Robert Irvine to find out how to boost mental wellbeing via food.
“New year, new me”: a mantra many of us attempt to live by as January rolls around and our holiday overindulgences finally catch up with us. As we ashamedly look back on all the Christmas-pudding-shaped calories we’ve over-consumed and hastily sign up to a plethora of online gym classes, one crucial thing often goes overlooked: our mental equilibrium.
2020 was a year of Herculean challenges, some of which have undeniably left their mark on our psyche. Alongside the very tangible Covid-19 pandemic, another pandemic has raised its ugly — yet much less visible — head: depression and anxiety rates have spiked across the globe, regardless of variables such as age, location or socioeconomic background.
So, how can we use our newfound appreciation for improved nutrition to boost our mental health? Vogue spoke to British chef Robert Irvine, whose approach to cooking is inspired by a mission to normalise conversations around mental health and boost our psychological wellbeing along the way.
A lot of us are struggling with our mental health, particularly after the events of last year. Why do we still not talk about the issue openly?
“It comes down to fear. Mental illness is still often seen as shameful or as not ‘real’. The pandemic has really blown the lid off this double-standard. Only recently have we started seeing movies and TV shows that depict the reality of mental illness. The more we share information, the easier it is to spot the signs. The stigma will persist until we begin to truly understand the problem.”
How can food help our mental health?
“Our happiest memories are inextricably linked to food. It’s not so much about what we eat, but who we eat it with. When I ask people about their favourite food-related memories, they tend to mention who they were with at the time. For me, it was sitting around the table with my mum, my sister and my brother for Sunday roast. Food is the ultimate connector.”
How can we retain this sense of community in a socially distanced world?
“This is it [points at screen]. It’s about reaching out to somebody. It’s about taking that step, even if you think they’re OK because they might not be. Last year, a friend of mine — a marine — committed suicide and no one saw it coming. It’s about looking out for signs and understanding behaviours. It’s always better to say something. Communication is tough enough without Covid, so we’ve now got to take that extra step to make sure those closest to us are coping.”
Your cookbook ‘Family Table’ includes your thoughts on food and family. What’s the key to a happy home?
“We’re all so busy tweeting and texting, there’s no real communication around the dinner table anymore. In our home, we put our phones in a basket and focus on cooking together as a family. It comes down to spending quality time together, without distractions.”
Today, we feel pressured to present an Instagram-perfect life, something you’ve spoken about. How do we turn that off?
“We perpetually feel like we’re not good enough because we constantly compare ourselves to others and social media makes this worse. Focus on what makes you feel good, and think about what you can do for others.”
You impress on people the importance of mending their interpersonal relationships before fixing what’s wrong with their business. Why is this important?
“Most problems that arise in an individual’s life can be traced back to dysfunctional interpersonal relationships — to mothers, fathers, siblings. Maybe someone once told them they were worthless, and here we are, 40 years later, dealing with the remnants of that trauma. For me, it’s about listening first, then doing.”
When you were in the navy, you were approached by a suicidal soldier. The experience prompted you to become involved in the mental health of servicemen and women. What happened?
“People approach me to this day. Most recently, I was contacted by a navy rescue swimmer who had spent six years jumping out of helicopters, saving people. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and had attempted suicide. He now dedicates his life to helping others. I’m producing a documentary about his life, which highlights the realities of PTSD. It’s about all those things that we, as a society, don’t talk about enough.”
You have two daughters. Does the new generation have a different approach to mental health and wellbeing?
“It’s a tough generation to be in. In addition to the huge debt most kids will be facing, once you’ve graduated from school, is there even going to be a job for you? Maybe the upside of all this pressure is that this generation is more empathetic to the plight of others. You see it all around the world — whether it’s the #MeToo movement or civil unrest, people care. There’s been a seismic shift. It’s amazing.”
As someone who is vocal about staying fit, where do you stand on the topic of body positivity?
“You’ve got to be comfortable in your own body. If you like the person you see in the mirror, never change. If there’s something you don’t like, change it — but do it slowly. It’s not necessarily about food or exercise. It’s about whatever makes you feel good, regardless of what anyone says. Body positivity is more mental than physical.”
Finally, what’s one key piece of wisdom you like to revisit?
“We’re on this planet for one thing only: to help those less fortunate. It can be helping someone across the road or opening the car door for them. Or it can be chipping in with their groceries if they’re struggling. If everyone did a little something for somebody else, our world would be a better place.”