Last month, March, was National Nutrition Month- “Put Your Best Fork Forward” – we dietetic technicians and dietitians chanted as we encouraged our clientele to make small changes towards overall better eating habits. Towards the end of the month I was so thrilled to be asked to speak at a Mental Health conference on the topic of nutrition and its impact on our brain health. I found the topic so interesting and applicable that I thought I’d share my findings with my lovelieats readers as well!
“You are what you eat.” We’ve heard that line one time too many but as nutritional knowledge increases so does our belief of how interconnected our diet is with our overall health. This quote is said to have come from Brillat- Savarin, a French gastronome in the 1800’s,a person that studies food and its influence on culture,“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
Fast forward two centuries and we see this trend continuing in an interview of psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University, Dr. Drew Ramsey, MD- he said “Traditionally, we haven’t been trained to ask about food and nutrition but diet is potentially the most powerful intervention we have. By helping people shape their diets, we can improve their mental health and decrease their risk of psychiatric disorders.”
This type of treatment would of course be in conjunction with medication, counsel as well as supervision of an attending medical team but it is exciting that there are holistic approaches that we can incorporate within the treatment of mental illness.
According to NAMI or the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the US- 43.9 million people will experience mental illness in a given year. Ramsey notes that in teens the prevalence of mental illness increases 80% when consuming a prominently Western diet. This association could be a major encouragement to determine which nutrients specifically are noted to aid in overall mental health for Americans.
Research has found a correlation between Omega 3 deficiencies in diet and an increased expression of depression in certain populations. In an article from the US journal of National Medicine it was noted that the omega fatty acids, DHA and EPA, found naturally in fish oil have been found to elicit antidepressant effects in humans. The author notes that this may be due to improved communication between neurotransmitters in the brain or a better balance of the chemicals necessary for brain health. Under the supervision of a health practitioner it was found that, in depressed patients, daily consumption of dietary omega 3 fatty acid supplements – containing 1.5- 2 g of EPA – has been shown to stimulate mood elevation in depressed patients.
Omega 3 fatty acids are found naturally in flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, salmon oil, chia seeds as well as salmon and other fatty fish. If choosing a capsule form, it is important to choose a supplement that has been third-party tested for purity as fish oils can be chock full of heavy metals if not sourced properly.
Some other nutrients of interest in the mental health community include B-12 as well Folate or more commonly called, B9. Minerals such as calcium, chromium, iron, iodine, selenium as well as zinc have all been seen to provide improvements in overall brain health when included in a balanced diet.
These nutrients aren’t found in some off-the-wall superfood or on a television infomercial but in fact are abundant in a diet rich in fruits and vegetables- some mentioned above and essential for a healthy mind. The USDA recommends 1-2 cups of fruit and 2-3 cups of vegetables per day depending on an individual’s gender and age. Fruits and vegetables should be consumed in a variety of colors as this helps encourage an increased variety of vitamins and minerals found in the produce.
An article in Forbes Magazine noted a 17% difference in population diagnosed with mental illness in comparison between some Asian countries and the United States. The US being the highest diagnosed rate at 19% and some Asian countries being as low as 2%. Forbes notes that this could be a difference associated with individuals not being as quick to seek diagnosis or a lack of diagnosis of mental illness by the attending physician due to a different opinion on the individual’s condition. However, I will add- Asian countries had the highest reported consumption of fruits and vegetables by the OECD- Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. A whopping 100% of individuals in some Asian countries claim to consume vegetables on a daily basis, in comparison to only 80% of Americans claiming to do the same.
Fruit and vegetable intake will not only stimulate brain health but also has been seen to decrease risks of prostate, breast cancer as well as cardiovascular disease- now that’s a magic bullet!