by Chris Jackson, BA, Residential Counselor
With the explosion of recent information regarding the connection between mental health and nutrition, Spruce Mountain Inn staff have been exploring how to bring more awareness of nutritionally sound, health-promoting eating and to empower residents to eat in ways that serve their overall health and well-being. We are fortunate to have an in-house chef preparing beautiful, nutritious meals for our residents, but we are not in control of what they eat. Spruce residents spend significant time in the community, have the ability to earn and spend their own money, and those in our step-down housing have their own kitchens for preparing food independently. We want to provide programming that will cultivate personal motivation for making healthy food choices and help residents develop a sophisticated understanding of how what they put in their bodies is impacting their mood, energy, brain chemistry, and health outcomes. Having extensively explored nutrition myself, I was passionate enough about this issue to create a new treatment group we call “Food Matters,” which ran for the first time this past fall.
My hope for the group was to discuss food and nutrition in a way that would provide for a broad understanding of the subject not mired in dogma, judgment, and “fad diets.” We started with the big picture, looking at human evolution and how we evolved to eat certain foods, and why many modern foods can be detrimental to our physical and emotional health. We also explored agriculture, its history and how modern industrial food can affect our health. We looked at traditional cultures known to be free of many of our modern diseases and saw that they ate whole, unprocessed, nutrient dense, local foods. In contrast, we saw how the modern advertising industry sells us unhealthy food in a way that exploits our primitive cravings for sweet, fat and salt, as well as our emotional connections to food. In the final weeks of the group, we explored new ideas and research into nutrition as therapy, including as a replacement for pharmaceutical medications. On the last day, we took all the information we learned and discussed what we can do as a community to improve access to good nutrition. Some ideas were to provide rides to the local food co-op instead of just the convenience store, starting gardens, and providing healthier snack options.
Nutrition can be challenging for residential programs to manage well, with so many different resident needs, the high cost of healthy food, and much conflicting information. However, if we are to truly support the mental health of our clients, we need to serve their overall physical health, much of which depends on what we they put into their bodies. We hope that this group and our commitment to providing high-quality nutrition in our community serve to launch our clients on a path toward greater wellness for their lives.
Chris Jackson has been a Residential Counselor at Spruce since 2006. In addition to leading Food Matters Group, Chris is a MovNat Certified personal trainer and facilitates various movement, recreational and outdoor programming. In his non-Spruce life, Chris teaches ecological design and permaculture at Yestermorrow Design Build School, and volunteers as a firefighter and EMT on the Plainfield, Vermont Fire Department.