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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

They’re called comfort foods for a reason: sugar, salt, and carbs give us a quick boost of flavour and familiarity. Making the case for comforting foods that nourish our mind and body.

“You are what you eat” — We’ve all heard the saying. It’s meant to nudge us toward healthier choices, but it doesn’t reflect all the links between diet and health, including the connections it has with chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and stroke. It also doesn’t include research over the past 50 years showing how much nutritional choices effect our brain and mental health, which is so striking that we should probably add “Good food for a good mood” to the phrase.

Dr. Bonnie J. Kaplan

Dr. Bonnie J. Kaplan

Research into the connections between nutrition and mental health began in 1972, when Bonnie Kaplan, then a grad student in experimental psychology, started looking into the physiological and psychological effects of malnutrition during pregnancy and the first few years of life. When she published “Malnutrition and Mental Deficiency” in the Psychological Bulletin that same year, her results struck a chord. She was deluged with requests for reprints of her groundbreaking research, which became the precursor to the field of nutritional psychology. The article’s key takeaway still resonates: “We can’t control our genes, but we can control what we eat so that we can be better nourish our brains and our mental health,” wrote Dr. Kaplan, now a retired research psychologist.

More recently, she co-authored The Better Brain: Overcome Anxiety, Combat Depression, and Reduce ADHD and Stress with Nutrition with Dr. Julia Rucklidge. The book takes a nutrition-first approach to mental health in relation to resilience with a focus on tryptophan — an essential amino acid in the nutrients we can consume — and its connection to serotonin, the “feel-good hormone” that can affect our mood. A short article like this could never fully explain the process of enzymes, co-factors, and chemical reactions involved, but a building-block effect Kaplan describes in her lectures has led her students to the “aha” moment where they can see these connections and are inspired to improve their diet.

The book’s suggestions for healthy eating are by now well known — whole foods (not ultra-processed), fewer carbs, less salt and saturated fats, and a preference for Mediterranean-style cooking — and originate in the “SMILES” trial (2017). In that study, participants with severe depression were randomly placed into two groups, one receiving social support and the other nutrition counselling that recommended a Mediterranean diet of fruits, vegetables, legumes, seafood, olive oil, and seeds. While both groups’ symptoms improved twelve weeks later, people in the Mediterranean diet group saw greater improvement, with 32 per cent of participants’ depressive symptoms going into remission (versus eight per cent for the social support group).

You seem “hangry”
I ask Kaplan: Can you give me a sense of how that happens? Well, she explains, “We cannot eat serotonin in food, right?” Like a rapt student I jot down the key point: “There is no food that contains the feel-good hormone, so we must eat things that enable our bodies to manufacture serotonin and other necessary micronutrients.”

Suddenly, I feel peckish. Chips come to mind — mmmm, all that satisfying salty, carby crunchiness. Except that I also just learned we need at least 30 different micronutrients to properly support our brain’s metabolism, which runs every minute of every day. Such ultra-processed foods can fill our stomach, but they also starve our brain because they’re deficient in vitamins and minerals. It’s the cerebral equivalent of feeling hangry when you’ve waited too long to eat. Kaplan calls this state “hidden brain hunger,” which happens when we consistently lack necessary micronutrients, so the brain lacks what it needs to function optimally and support our mental health. Why is this “hidden”? Because the resulting effects are not always directly felt.

These days, price hikes from inflation make stocking the pantry with such foods a costly challenge for many. Having limited access to fresh foods is also a problem, particularly for those living in food deserts, who must pay even more with the additional time and travel.

No easy answers
It turns out that our brain is actually the greediest organ in our body: while it accounts for just two per cent of body weight, it absorbs at least 20 percent of all the nutrients we consume, Kaplan says. Feeding that beast means nourishing the brain with micronutrients. Canada’s latest food guide snapshot shows us what this could look like: filling half the plate with a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, and each of the other two quarters with protein and whole grains.

If only it were that simple.

These days, price hikes from inflation make stocking the pantry with such foods a costly challenge for many. According to Food in Canada magazine, grocery prices have spiked more than seven per cent over the past year — the fastest increase in 13 years. Canada’s Food Price Report forecasts that the most significant increases for 2022 will be in the healthy food category, including dairy and vegetables. That means, an average family of four will pay nearly $15,000 for food this year, almost $1,000 more than in 2021. Having limited access to fresh foods is also a problem, particularly for those living in food deserts, who must pay even more with the additional time and travel.

While Kaplan’s findings can tempt us to draw easy parallels between a change in food and mood, depression is a complex state for those who experience it. We should also keep in mind that changes in diet alone are no substitute for seeing our physician or therapist and taking prescribed medications. Still, as the field of nutritional psychology grows, it is helpful to see its recommendations become part of an integrative or alternative treatment for mental health challenges, something that one in five people in Canada live with.

Views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Seeing the frosting for the trees: Research underscores the link between nutrition and wellness.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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