“I really think cooking is what saved me from depression.”
If you’re like the vast majority of people in the U.S. right now, you’re cold. You’re recovering from a winter storm or you’re preparing for the next winter storm, and you don’t venture outside unless it’s absolutely necessary because it’s grey and snowy and depressing. Winter can suck the joy right out of you.
And when we’re lacking joy, we eat. We eat a lot. You don’t have to search far on the internet to find stories with titles like “50 Winter Comfort Foods to Help You Beat the Cold Weather Blues.” That one is from The Today Show, and it includes graphic photos of gooey mac-and-cheese that looks so inviting, I want to crawl up inside it like it’s a delicious cheesy down comforter. Eating when you’re sad, especially when it’s cold outside, is not just culturally acceptable, it’s culturally encouraged.
The problem is, all that overeating isn’t making us any happier. Just the opposite. We know we should eat something more nutritious instead. Rationally, we know that choice has a happier ending. There’s an abundance of new research suggesting that our diets play a bigger role in our emotions than previously believed. Eating right won’t just prevent depression, it could actually reverse the effects when you’re already deep in the throes of a foul winter funk.
But that’s easier said than done. It’s one thing to state the obvious— “Eating that entire pizza by myself probably isn’t going to make me happier” — but how do we change the behavior? Because pizza tastes gooooood. And it’s so freaking cold outside, and now I’m sad all the time for no reason, and dammit just give me the pizza and nobody gets hurt!
It’s a problem. So we reached out to Kevin Curry for guidance.
Who the hell is Kevin Curry? He’s just a regular guy, not all that different from you or me, who changed his life by making better choices. Not so long ago, he was living with his parents in Dallas—he lost his tech job and his savings in the 2008 crash—and was struggling with chronic depression. His doctor prescribed him antidepressants, but the pills could only do so much. He was also overweight, despite going to the gym several times a week, because he too often ate like a broke college student. So beginning in 2012, he decided to teach himself to cook. No more fast food and binge eating. He recorded his progress on his personal blog, and it soon attracted a following. It grew to the hundreds, then thousands, and now he has millions of followers on Instagram, YouTube, and his Fit Men Cook website.
Curry, now 37 years old, is down to a slim 195 pounds on a 5’9” frame. And not only is he off antidepressants, he’s feeling better than ever. As he explains in his new book, Fit Men Cook (out now), he discovered that a “healthier lifestyle could help me feel better and manage my emotions in more productive ways. And although I still struggle with depression off and on, I now have a game plan.”
To dig deeper into that game plane, I called Curry, who’s on the road promoting his book—if you live in Atlanta, you can catch him on February 26th. We talked about depression, overeating, and whether salad can be taken seriously as a winter comfort food.
MH: I’m in Chicago right now. It’s about two degrees outside. Every fiber of my being wants to get into sweatpants and eat a bunch of pasta.
Kevin Curry: Oh wow.
Talk me out of eating that pasta, Kevin. I’m begging you.
Well, here’s the thing. I used to live in Boston and it was super cold there. I did the same thing, except instead of the pasta I would have shepherd’s pie.
That’s good stuff.
There’s nothing like cold weather to make you want to stay inside and make bad decisions. But what I’ve noticed is, comfort food is a big myth. It shouldn’t even be called comfort food. It should be called instant comfort. Because that’s all it is. All the pleasure and relief it gives you only happens as you’re spooning the food into your mouth. But once you finish, when the meal’s gone…
That’s when the self-loathing begins.
Right! And the bloat.
Bloat and self-loathing are the yin and yang of winter depression.
So you repeat the process because you want those good feelings back. But it’s a momentary comfort.
I think opium users call it “chasing the dragon.”
Yeah. It’s kind of like that. Eating is very therapeutic, but it’s also the most addictive thing out there. And it’s an acceptable addiction.
You tell your buddies, “I feel sad, let’s eat some cheese fries,” they’ll probably join you. But say, “Let’s do some opium to chase away the blues,” and they’re all like, “You’re a drug addict!”
And the cheese fries are everywhere. They’re easy to find. And it’s all so cheap. You can get a value meal for two bucks, with a burger, fries and a Coke. But a salad will cost you eight or ten bucks. So not only is junk food acceptable, it’s easy to abuse. For me, it was about learning to be mindful about what I was putting into my body. Food is just therapy. We medicate ourselves with food. And a lot of times, we do it in a trance.
How do you mean?
We don’t pay attention to what we’re eating. Because we’re busy. You’re doing things and trying to squeeze it all in. You get lost in that hamster wheel of life. And then suddenly you’re like, “Okay, I’ve got to eat something,” so you find whatever’s easiest and closest and gulp it down and go back to what you were doing. We don’t pay attention. It doesn’t matter. It’s just route behavior. We need to find ways to be more mindful when we’re eating.
How do we do that?
You have to remind yourself of why you’re doing something. And when you want to change, you remind yourself of why you’re breaking away from your old behavior. When I started, I needed to remind myself of my goals. I live in Texas, and admittedly our cold weather has nothing on Chicago.
Don’t even try.
But for a Texan, it can feel cold. And that makes you want to eat. So during months like this, I would set goals for myself, whether it was a weight loss goal or a fitness goal. It gave me something to work towards, and to look forward to. It was really a way to remind myself of why I wasn’t going to do the things my head and body were telling me to do. And I would make sure those goals were very visible. I’d write them down and put them on my fridge, or my bathroom mirror.
Seeing those goals would stop you?
Sometimes. Not always. But a lot of times, yes. Because I couldn’t open the fridge in a trance. I saw that reminder of what I was doing, and why. And that snapped me out of it. It forced me to ask, “Hey, okay, you’re hungry, I get it, but what narrative am I trying to write for myself?” I had to be confronted with that question every single time. So even if it’s below freezing outside and I just want something greasy and calorific because I think it’s going to be instant relief, I go to the fridge and see the note, and it says, “Kevin, don’t forget you got the Tough Mudder coming up.” Or “You promised yourself that we were going to lose five pounds this month.” It’s right there in front of me. I can’t forget what my goals are. I can’t get lost in the trance of, “I’m busy, just eat something quick and move on.”
You almost become your own biggest cheerleader.
That’s exactly it. That’s it in a nutshell. You have to be your own cheerleader. I try to do that all the time. I tell myself, “Kevin, you’ve got it going on! You are killing it out here. You just created this awesome recipe!” I high-five myself.
No you don’t.
I totally do!
Okay, that is both hilarious and awesome.
Sometimes you have to do that. We’re not used to saying positive things about ourselves. We’ve been taught that negative self-talk is more motivating than positive self-talk.
How has cooking helped you?
I really think cooking is what saved me from depression. I’ve struggled with depression my entire life, but it wasn’t until later on when it was triggered again. I was in Boston and I’d gone through a couple of setbacks. It sent me into a deep, dark depressive spiral. But cooking allowed me to nurse myself back to health.
Was the busywork of it therapeutic? Just having something to do with your hands so you wouldn’t obsess over your sadness?
Absolutely. I didn’t really get that connection until later on. It wasn’t just that I was making this nutritious food and doing something good for myself. It was having this tiny modicum of control. I have a philosophy: When life gets really bad, you need to narrow your focus. Find one thing you can do to improve yourself every day.
One thing feels like a miracle when you’re in a dark place. For me, it didn’t start off as cooking. It was enough just to get up every morning. That was my goal. “I’m going to make my bed. And open up all the blinds. I’m going to intentionally do that every morning.” Just the act of letting the light in, it changed my entire mood. I’m sure it had a lot to do with the vitamin D.
But eventually you get more ambitious, right? You left your bedroom?
Oh sure. Let’s say that you drink six sodas a day. So you make the conscious decision, okay, I’m going to cut that number in half. That’s my one thing today. Once you do that one thing and you’re very intentional about doing that one thing, and you accomplish it, you’re like, “Well that wasn’t so bad. Maybe I can do something else.” Slowly but surely, you start transforming your body with these small incremental acts. That’s how I started with my meal prep. I wanted to save money because I couldn’t afford to eat out all the time. But I also wanted to eat healthier.
When you don’t know your way around a kitchen, trying to cook something healthy can seem impossibly complicated.
It really can.
Why not just microwave a frozen pot pie and be done with it?
I was overwhelmed by this idea of trying to overhaul my diet, because I’d tried it already and failed. So I said to myself, “Alright kid, you’re just going to cook your lunch and bring it to work every day. You’re going to stop eating out with your coworkers.” I did that every day for two or three weeks. And then something happened.
It got easier?
It got easier! And I was so proud of myself. Pretty soon I was like, “Maybe I can make breakfast this morning.” So I started doing that. That led to me saying, “After my workouts, I always go get something from Chipotle or eat something that’s quick and easy but isn’t so good for me. Maybe I should prep a post-workout meal.” Then all of a sudden, what I once would’ve thought was impossible—making three meals a day by myself, in my kitchen—was just normal. It took a couple of months, but it became my new normal.
All of that makes sense in theory. But when I’m feeling sad and the weather outside is horrible, the last thing I want to think about is a salad. You know what I mean?
I do, yeah.
A salad just pisses me off. Because nothing about it seems comforting. Even though yes, I know what you’re saying, eating it will make me feel better than that microwave burrito. But my heart still wants the burrito. I have positive associations with the burrito. The burrito will make everything okay. How do we break past those culinary prejudices?
Listen, food makes us happy. It’s always going to make us happy. But there’s context.
Like, okay, I was raised in the South. My mom is from Louisiana, my dad is from South Carolina. I grew up with Soul Food Sunday. Every Sunday after church, we ate together as a family, and it wasn’t healthy.
Holy lord. You were doomed from the start.
One of my first memories of feeling loved was my mom cooking for me. I grew up eating soul food and Mexican food and Italian food. So that’s what my brain associated with pleasure. Because it was connected with all these amazing memories of being a kid. When I started to cook healthier, I made a commitment to expose my tastebuds to different things, to things I’d spent most of my life avoiding.
You were rewiring your brain?
That’s right. Because we teach ourselves what tastes good. When people start eating vegetables for the first time, or anything else that’s unfamiliar or calorie conscious, their first response might be, “Oh this tastes nasty.” It’s not nasty, it’s just unfamiliar. It’s not what your brain is connecting with good memories. You don’t see a salad and think, “My mama loves me.” But the more you eat those foods, that will start to change. You’ll start to appreciate them.
But what if you don’t?
Okay. But seriously though, what if you don’t?
You will! It just takes time. The more you eat vegetables, and the more you incorporate them into your life, you’ll start to associate them with happy times and happy memories. You won’t think of a salad as “Ugh, that stuff I have to eat.” If that’s the food you go for at a party, or a gathering of friends, or when you’re alone at home during the dead of winter, that becomes your happy food.
So you’re saying salad, or vegetables in general, could, if we want them to, become the new winter comfort food?
It could! When you repeat something enough times, it becomes a habit. It’s a subconscious thing that you’re doing, but it really works. If you want salad to become your comfort food, then eat salad. And keep eating salad. And before you know it, salad will become your comfort food.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Menshealth.com)