“Eat this, you’ll feel better.”
Many of us have heard this or even offered this advice, as most people have had some direct experience of the link between mood and food.
When my son was a toddler, his mood was directly, conspicuously related to the contents of his stomach. My husband and I quickly learned that his agreeableness could be more or less ensured with the timely administration of a granola bar.
We never went anywhere without a granola bar.
New evidence from the burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry is helping to make sense of such anecdotal experiences and could expand the horizons of psychiatric research, theory and practice in important ways.
Investigations of the relationship between nutrition and aspects of brain function relevant to mental health date back to the 1970s, and nutritionists working in complementary and alternative medicine have long recognized the connection.
But this area of research has recently gained new momentum within psychiatry. In the last five years, numerous observational research—as well as intervention and animal studies—have confirmed the importance of dietary content in diverse populations around the world.
In my work as a medical anthropologist who studies the interactions between mental and physical health, I have observed the ways that psychological problems are often closely linked to the state of our bodies.
New findings from nutritional psychiatry research suggest that our emotional state may be closely related to the content of the foods we eat, providing additional evidence of the links between mind and body.
A new study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that consumption of meats cured with nitrates (such as hot dogs and salami) may contribute to episodes of mania. While other factors also contribute to clinical levels of mania, this study suggests that people who eat large amounts of such meats may experience important psychological and behavioral effects.
Other studies have shown that diets high in fruits, vegetables, protein and good fats may help prevent—and even cure—depression. Conversely, diets high in saturated fats, refined carbohydrates and processed foods are associated with greater risk for depression.
Perhaps most potentially transformative among these findings is evidence that diet affects mental health in children, including risk for depression and anxiety, but also attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Studies show an association between dietary quality and ADHD in children. There is also evidence that a lack of certain nutrients may contribute to the disorder. So while there is not sufficient evidence to back up the popular notion that sugar causes hyperactivity, an overabundance of processed foods and refined carbohydrates (including refined sugar) may actually increase the risk of ADHD symptoms.
In principle, findings about the links between diet and ADHD could put more nonpharmaceutical interventions into the mix for disorders like ADHD, allowing parents a means to help regulate child emotional well-being and behavior outside the clinic.
This could represent an important new direction for psychiatry, which has been moving in an increasingly reductive direction in recent years, focusing almost exclusively on neurobiological causes and pharmaceutical treatment of mental disorders.
As a result, rates of psychopharmaceutical consumption are at an all-time high in the U.S[KS1] . This includes startlingly high rates of psychoactive medication use among children, who are prescribed such drugs for a range of conditions, including stimulants for ADHD. As many as 4.5 percent of children in this country have been prescribed stimulants—so many that the practice has become normalized.
To be sure, nutritional psychiatry thus far also tends to reach for biological explanations. But the pathways implicated and under consideration are diverse and complex, including factors such as immune function and the microbiome-gut-brain pathway, among others.
Because food is inherently social and cultural—part of people’s environments, not something in their internal make-up—nutritional psychiatry will also have to engage with social and cultural factors in order to construct studies, make sense of findings and formulate recommendations for treatment and intervention.
Though the field is still emerging, its potential to help explain strong associations between poverty and mental health problems like depression and even schizophrenia, is exciting.
Nutrition may be one pathway through which poverty and marginalization work to undermine psychological well-being.
An important risk of such research is that rather than empowering parents to find nonpharmaceutical solutions for their children’s problems, findings could place an additional burden on families to regulate children, opening them up to blame for their children’s emotional and behavioral problems.
By far the greatest risk for such blame is on the most vulnerable people in our society—those for whom good nutrition is not a choice, and for whom multiple converging risk factors contribute to poor mental health.
As the science develops, research needs to be accompanied by political activism that demands government support for programs that fund nutrition education and programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP This program would be gutted in the proposed 2019 federal budget and would put healthy foods out of reach for many families.
With the right research and advocacy, perhaps we can harness the power of food to make us all feel better.