Rarely do we link our food choices to mental health, but research suggests what we eat may be as important in treating mental illness as medications and psychotherapy.
The article opens with a story about a grieving woman who was eating a lot of junk food and teetering on the edge of depression. She enrolled in a depression-prevention study where she and half of the other participants were assigned to the control group and received counseling on a “brain healthy” diet. The other half were placed in the experimental group and underwent a few hours of problem-solving therapy.
As the control, the dietary counseling was not meant to have much effect, but the opposite was true.
Ditching a high sugar, highly processed diet in favor of whole foods significantly reduced risk of depression by roughly the same amount as partaking in problem-solving therapy.
Earlier studies have produced similar links between diet and depression:
- A 2017 randomized controlled clinical trial reported that eating a Mediterranean-like diet for 12 weeks significantly improved depressive symptoms in people suffering from moderate to severe depression as compared to the control
- A 2011 study of more than 12,000 healthy Spaniards showed that people who ate a Mediterranean diet were significantly less likely to become depressed compared to people who didn’t follow this diet
- Another Spanish study, this one from 2013, found that subjects who followed a nut-enriched Mediterranean diet had a lower risk for depression compared with those who ate a generic low-fat diet
Looking beyond depression, a 2015 study showed how a hybrid of the Mediterranean and low-salt DASH diet might help prevent Alzheimer’s. And, another 2015 study connected poor diet with a shrinking brain!
A traditional Mediterranean diet is high in olive oil, fatty fish, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, moderate in lean protein, and low in added sugar, highly processed foods, and fatty meat.
Besides the Mediterranean-style diet, traditional Japanese and Scandinavian diets are thought to benefit mental health. A traditional Japanese diet includes colorful vegetables, seaweed, some fish, some meat and limited sugar and white rice, whereas a Scandinavian diet is heavy in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains (especially rye), seafood, canola oil and moderate amounts of meat and dairy.
All of these brain healthy diets are full of fruits, vegetables and other powerful anti-inflammatory agents, such as omega-3 fats from fatty fish and seaweed.
Arguably the most important nutrient for the evolution and development of the human brain is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fat. DHA plays a role in the development, structure and function of the brain, and it’s thought to increase levels of a protein that contributes to the growth and survival of brain cells.
Fruits, vegetables and other plant foods contain fiber, and fiber is important fuel for beneficial gut microbes. A balanced gut microbiome is key to good health.
On the flip side, the stereotypical Western diet is full of highly processed foods, sugar and fatty meats, and low in fruits and vegetables.
Excessive amounts of sugar and highly processed foods drive uncontrolled inflammation, and inflammation plays a major role in a range of brain disorders as evidenced by elevated markers of inflammation in depressed patients.
Plus, a high sugar diet can inflame the gut resulting in a deficiency of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to depression and other mental disorders. And, eating a high sugar, highly processed food diet has been shown to wipe out important bacterial species in the gut!
Bottom line, changing what we eat is the easiest way to support a healthy gut microbiome and control inflammation for both physical and mental health, and diet might be as important as medications and therapy in managing mental illness.
Click here for more information on a Mediterranean diet.