Baking used to improve mental health?

  • Baking and the treats that come from it are often linked with feelings of comfort and happiness, but does it carry any therapeutic value?

    The winner of last year's The Great British Bake Off, John Whaite, says that ‘baking helps lift my depression. It can't cure it but it helps.' Diagnosed with manic depression eight years ago, Whaite explains that baking is his way to turn any manic, erratic negative energy into something constructive, whilst being an effective way to manage his condition.Black Country Museum, Birmingham UK

    "When I'm in the kitchen, measuring the amount of sugar, flour or butter I need for a recipe or cracking the exact number of eggs - I am in control. That's really important as a key element of my condition is a feeling of no control."

    Whaite turned down prescribed medication and focused on other traditional treatments such as talking therapy and exercise sessions. In his latest cookbook he has included a chapter on the recipes he uses to help lift his spirits and is also a supporter of The Depressed Cake Shop.

    The Depressed Cake Shop is a mental health charity initiative set up by Emma Thomas (Miss Cakehead) who is a specialist food creative consultant. The shop ran a series of pop-up cake stalls across the country earlier this month and only sold grey cakes. These cake stalls raised thousands of pounds for mental health charities whilst also providing an unusual platform for people to discuss mental health issues.

    Melanie Denyer, the host of London's Depressed Cake Shop in Brick Lane, says the success of the event was phenomenal. Denyer has struggled with mental health problems first 15 years and has recently been diagnosed with personality disorder. She is currently seeing a psychiatrist and has taken anti-depressants.

    "For a lot of us involved in this project, mental illness and baking are linked. A lot of us turn to baking when we're feeling low. Some of us even started baking because they were ill and needed something simple as a focus. And there is genuinely something very therapeutic about baking.

    "I have, for years, turned to my kitchen and cooked, savoury or sweet, because I get some relief in the creation of something that, in and of itself, is goodness, love, nurture - sometimes even beauty - when all I feel I am is ugliness, pain and a drain on all around me," she says.

    East London NHS Foundation Trust has begun experimenting with cooking therapies and earlier this year launched Recipes of Life, an integrated talking therapy with healthy cooking and eating sessions.

    Dr Mark Slater, a consultant psychiatrist working in east London, says that baking and cooking are good occupational therapies. He says that baking is particularly powerful because of its symbolism in our culture - associated with nurture and goodness.

    The therapeutic benefits of baking effect people in different ways. For people like Denyer, she says that the act of making other people happy by giving away her treats helps to lift her spirits. For others it may be the process of kneading and creating the mixture.

    Whaite does warn that eating too many baked goods can undo some of the benefits as "You need to be careful you don't consume too much sugar or else you get a sugar high and then a slump."

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