Wednesday, October 19, 2011

You Are What You Eat

Did you know that diet could affect mental health?  Okay, that is, perhaps, putting it too strongly.  Diet is correlated with mental health, especially in Australia.

Mental health disorders tend to be pretty chronic and can be debilitating.  And, unlike many chronic diseases of Western Civilization, they tend to strike young.  Autism in babyhood, anxiety disorders often before age 10, mood disorder in the teens, schizophrenia in the late teens and early adulthood… psychiatric disorders cost us so much in terms of productivity and health.

Y'all already know what I think.  (Donnie Darko, Mad World right click to open in new tab).

There is every reason to believe a modern, processed, nutrient-poor diet could have a lot of influence on mental health.  Of course, no one knows what to tell anyone to eat except for "fruits and vegetables." And that is what PLOS1 tells us today…

A Prospective Study of Diet Quality and Mental Health in Adolescents

In this study, several thousand Australian adolescents filled out surveys about diet, health, and mental health several years apart.

Here is how diet quality was assessed:

 As such, a point was allotted for each of the following: eating breakfast at home on school days; eating lunch brought from home; consuming two or more fruit serves per day; four or more vegetable serves per day; fruit and/or sandwiches as after school snacks; generally avoiding biscuits, potato chips, pies, hot chips, fried foods, chocolate, sweets, ice-creams as after school snacks; and, finally, both consuming healthy after school snacks and avoiding unhealthy after school snacks. 

It is not terribly surprising that an unhealthy diet score in the first survey correlated with a poorer rating of mental health in the second survey several years later.  Covariates were assessed for but can never really be extinguished completely… interestingly, mental health at baseline did not predict diet several years later, strengthening the findings of the study.

But I rather love these researchers, and will quote some of the interpretation in full here:

...the prevalence of emotional and conduct problems in adolescents increased in the period between the mid 1970's and 1999, while a new meta-analysis, reporting on data collected at many time points and, thus, free of confounding by age and/or recall bias, has reported large generational increases in self-reported psychopathology in American high school and college students between the 1930s and 2007. These increases did not appear to be explained by social response biases, economic cycles or changes in student populations, and the authors concluded that changes in unidentified cultural factors have resulted in increased rates of psychopathology among American youth.
 Paralleling this possible increase in the rates of psychological illness among young people are data indicating a reduction in the quality of adolescents' diets over recent decades. A report based on trends in adolescent food consumption in the US identified a reduction in the consumption of raw fruits, high-nutrient vegetables and dairy foods, which are important sources of fibre and essential nutrients, between 1965 and 1996, with an associated increase in the consumption of fast food, snacks and sweetened beverages. Concurrently, population surveys demonstrate a substantial increase in overweight and obesity among children and adolescents over recent decades. Obesity does not necessarily indicate nutritional repletion, as high-energy foods typically have poor nutrient content.
Could it all be connected?  Increasing muffin tops and increasing psych hospitalizations in children and increasing psychopathology?  And how expensive is it to society when a lean cuisine is the epitome of healthy eating?

A very very mad world indeed.


  1. HAHAHA, that's got to be the best opening link ever; "Mad World" huh!?!

  2. Yippeeee finally people are beginning to declare the 'Emperor has no clothes'!

  3. I'm amazed that it's taken me so many years to "get" that I am what I eat when I spend so much time dutifully researching the side-effects of any medications or supplements that I take. I clearly understand the connection between those ingestibles and "who I am"!

  4. What about the evidence linking marijuana use with psychosis? I find it difficult to believe that food is the main culprit in the rise of mental disorders among adolescents and teens.

  5. Margaret, if you search the blog you will find several articles on psychosis and marijuana. Obviously mental health disorders are due to a complex mix of genetic vulnerability, temperament, and environment, including family, diet, stressors, and toxins including drugs. It is highly plausible that a processed food, junk diet will introduce toxins and reduce resiliency to stress.

  6. I had to laugh Emily as when I first read this blog's title.. I thought to myself...well, I do eat quite a bit of nuts!!

    I do think it is all connected.. muffin tops in teens and rolls of fat midsection.. are the beginning evidence of overproduction of the fat growth hormone insulin...I do believe when hormones are out of whack physiologically, they throw things off emotionally too.

  7. You're right. I'm sure what we ingest plays a part in our vulnerability to disease of all kinds including mental illness, and in my son's case, I suspect marijuana was a big factor.

  8. Hi, the latest episode of the tv show "House" concluded that you are (sometimes) what your medical pathology makes you be. An excessively altruistic donor was found to have Plummer's disease, viz. thyroid nodules causing excess hormones.

    That seems like a stretch to me, but I'm just pointing it out for curiosity sake as something that's out in pop culture.

  9. First time, i've ever listened to the music, while reading. Great choice of song, and great review. I was encouraged by the article. During my training, I am often advised to "stick to the evidenced based treatments." I am excited to see articles like this showing, what appears to be at least some correlation between diet and mental health. Did you see the article in the American Psychologist "Lifestyle and Mental Health" by Roger Walsh. I think it was in January's edition of this year. Could have been titled, Promote Caveman Living. haha

  10. I ate crap as a teen, and I was a depressed, moody mess. Plus, always cold, weak fingernails, frizzy hair, etc. I was a bit chubby, and the mom was always trying to starve me with non-fat food. I didn't like meat, other than hot dogs and frozen fried chicken, so I lived on canned tomato soup and fruits and veggies. I'm glad I figured that shit out, life is much better these days, though my mom still eats neurotically, and is a psycho, I'm surprisingly sane, though my parents shake their heads and grumble about the way I eat. BTW, I love beans, eat them almost every day. And fruit, lots of it.


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