OUM: Nasi lemak, walnuts and cashews? The psychology of food for our moods and minds

June 20, 2020

Does fried food leave you feeling blue? Do spicy dishes have you seeing red? Our meals can fuel changes in our mental and emotional well-being, so it matters what we eat.

In the second part of our series of food-related interviews with senior faculty members of Open University Malaysia, we spoke to Dr Wong Huey Siew, Director of OUM's Bachelor of Psychology with Honours programme, to understand how to plan our diets better.

EDKL: Good morning, Dr Wong. What did you have for breakfast this morning?

DR WONG: Today I had kuih and cake. But my favourite breakfast is bread and Milo.

EDKL: That sounds like a good old-fashioned way to start the day. We'd like to hear your insights on how food influences our thoughts and happiness.

DR WONG: I believe that in order to have a quality life, we must have a healthy lifestyle, by being physically fit, mentally strong and psychologically healthy. That way, we can concentrate on our work and the important things in our life.

From the food perspective, we must eat less oily food - so, less nasi lemak - and take many other types of food - for example, fruits and all kinds of nuts, like walnuts and cashews, which are good for our brains and memory. That's important in order for us to make good decisions and to carry out sharp, thorough, analyses.

EDKL: Scale down on greasy stuff, snack on nuts - that sounds doable. What else?

Herbs can help, because they can affect people's emotions - any traditional herbs, whether they're from the Malay, Chinese or Indian community. Ginseng is very good, to build up our immune system to boost our health. And of course, drink more water.

For some food, it depends on the situation. Yin and yang, hot and cold, to make sure it's all balanced. I believe it’s better to consume less spicy food, because it can stimulate our mind to become too active. It's like controlling sugar levels for children to prevent them from becoming hyperactive.

Every individual's body conditions and natures are different. For example, when it comes to coffee - some drink more to keep them alert if they feel sleepy, but some cannot drink it at all. Some people can take more seafood, some are allergic. 

So all individuals have to observe themselves. If your mind feels fresh, that's a good indicator for you. If you feel stressed or tired, take less of certain food.

It's also linked to whether we have enough sleep or not. Take care of your physiological needs as well as your emotions.

EDKL: How do we control our cravings for unhealthy food though?

DR WONG: I believe this is through self-awareness and discipline. People need to be more aware of how food can affect them - they must obtain the right information, so that they'll be more conscious of the impact on their psychology or physiology, their hormones and immune systems.

React to the signals that your body sends you. If you really care about yourself, be conscious of your physiological needs. When people work for very long periods, they can forget to take their meals; they might miss breakfast, skip lunch or have very late dinners. That can lead to poor dietary habits. 

EDKL: Discipline sounds really important to you. We understand that you lost your vision when you were in primary school - how important was discipline in everything you've accomplished since then?

DR WONG: I'm 50 now. My sight challenges have been just another challenge for me - I have to work just like other people, I have to perform at 100% like other people. Whatever other people do, I'm required to perform the same things. In terms of mobility, I can move around independently once I'm familiar with new environments, after I have a few weeks or a month to explore.

When you’re involved in academic life, you have to do a lot of reading - so that's another challenge, as many references and material are in hard copies. But nowadays, there are a lot of e-books, which give me more advantages because I can more easily access e-journals and e-resources.

In the end, the education line is quite suitable for me. Even while pursuing my PhD, I could still remain engaged in community work, social work.

EDKL: That's pretty inspirational. What do you hope students gain from your course - why choose psychology?

DR WONG: There are many reasons. Different people have different expectations. For example, some retirees come back to study because they want to have that satisfaction in life. They want to occupy themselves, keep themselves busy and their minds alert.

Some of them say, when they were young, there was something they wanted to study or do but couldn't because of heavy family commitments. Maybe they made the sacrifice to enter the workforce because they were the eldest child and had to prioritise their younger siblings to reduce their parents' burden. So after retirement, they feel, 'it's my time.'

We have students who are working in different industries - for example, in the police, PDRM. They want to study psychology to know more about human beings, to engage with the community. They have to interact with people and want to improve their communication skills, for self-growth and personal development. Psychology is one of the most important aspects in understanding how people behave, why certain people stay silent all the time, how to tackle a stressful situation and handle pressure. How to manage myself, how to manage my emotions.

Even parents can learn from psychology, to take care of the family and look after their children, from infancy to small children to teenagers. They keep growing, but the development is different in each stage, the issues are different. Teenagers can get out of control, due to their peers' influence and the external environment. If you don't instill good values from the beginning, it becomes very difficult.

Dr Wong with his colleagues at Open University Malaysia

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