Changing Diets, Changing Minds

The recently published report from Sustain and the Mental Health Foundation on the dramatic increase in mental health problems, and the contributory role that our diet and food intolerance could be playing in this phenomenon, has received a lot of publicity.
The full report makes alarming , but sensible, reading. Below is a summary of its findings.

Much attention is currently being paid to the growing crisis of obesity. Throughout the world people are eating too much unhealthy food and exercising too little. The result is a staggering rise in the number of individuals, many of them children, whose weight far exceeds what is healthy. In turn unhealthy lifestyles are contributing to the increase in diseases such as diabetes and diet-related cancers.

Exercise is an important factor but changes in the amount and types of food eaten are root causes of these dramatic changes in patterns of disease.

At the same time the world is also facing another less visible health crisis - this one in the realm of mental health. Like obesity, mental and behavioural disorders are of increasing and serious public health concern. However, unlike obesity, mental health receives very little public attention. There is also very little awareness of the growing evidence that the same factors responsible for obesity (ie too much and the wrong kinds of food) may also be partly responsible for this increase in mental and behavioural problems.

Brain Hunger
The brain is the largest organ in the body and, like other organs, it is affected by what we eat and drink. However, in contrast to other organs, the links between diet and brain (how we think and act) are not recognised by government and most health professionals.
Sustain, working with the Mental Health Foundation, has collected around 500 research studies to demonstrate the breadth and depth of this link.

Despite the quantity and quality of the research, scientific understanding of these links is far from complete, but it is clear that our diets affect how our brains are made and how they work throughout our lives. Although some periods are more critical than others (of the energy absorbed by the foetus during pregnancy, for example, 70% is directed toward brain development) there appears to be no point in our lives when diet has no effect.

Good Brain Food
There is no ‘magic bullet’ or single nutrient which holds the key to mental health, but a combination of nutrients which need to be available in the right amounts and proportion to each other - viz:
• polyunsaturated fatty acids (particularly the omega 3 types found in fish and some plants)
• minerals: zinc (in whole grains, legumes, milk and meat), magnesium (in green leafy vegetables, nuts and whole grains), and iron (in red meat, green leafy vegetables, eggs and some fruit)
• vitamins: folate (in green leafy vegetables and fortified cereals), a range of B vitamins (whole grain products, yeast and dairy products) and antioxidant vitamins such as C and E (in a wide range of fruits and vegetables).
Exactly the healthy balanced diet which is widely recommended to reduce our risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes.

Bad Brain Food
People eating diets that lack one or more of this combination and/or contain too much saturated fat, sugar and a range of food and agricultural chemicals, seem to be at higher risk of developing:
• Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
• Various depressive conditions
• Schizophrenia
• Dementia/Alzheimer's disease

The evidence so far does not show that these conditions can be prevented or cured by diet alone. However, evidence is accumulating that the right diet may help to:
• relieve the symptoms of mental illness
• improve the effectiveness of some medications
• reduce the unpleasant side effects of some medications

The diet that would give us the right amount and balance of these nutrients would contain lots of different vegetables and fruit, a wide variety of whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, and some occasional oily fish, lean meat and dairy products.

When food supplies were plentiful our ancestors would have eaten broadly this kind of diet. Unfortunately that is not what most of us are eating now.

The agricultural and industrial revolutions, followed by the globalisation of world food trade mean that most people in rich countries (and growing proportions in poor countries) eat:
• small amounts of a few types of vegetables and fruit
• very few whole grain products - our carbohydrates are mostly refined (sugar and products made from white flour) - and a very narrow range of cereals (90% wheat in the UK)
• very little oily fish, but large quantities of intensively
pro duced meat, meat products and dairy products
• unknown (and possible unknowable) combinations of food and agricultural chemicals, either as intentional additives or accidental residues.

Our analysis of the research indicates that this diet may be contributing to the rise in mental ill-health and anti-social behaviour.

The personal costs of mental health are already too high. The costs to society as a whole are also high - the latest estimate is £100 billion in the UK alone - and rising. The changes we are calling for will have negligible risks and enormous benefits to physical and mental health and well-being.

The consequences of failing to make these changes could be almost too terrible to contemplate.

You can download a pdf copy of the complete report free of charge, or buy a printed version (cost £10) from Sustain 020 7837 1228


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First Published in 2006

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