Charles prides himself on being a highly self aware person. He is a health nut that exercises religiously and rarely strays from his strict, paleo diet. He journals every day, tracking his behavior and mood. While doing so, he noticed a strange pattern emerge. Every other Monday, he would show up to work rather irritable for no apparent reason. He found himself snapping at his co-workers at the smallest transgressions, all while struggling to stay mentally sharp.
It turns out that Charles would fly to visit his daughter every other weekend prior to his abnormal shift in demeanor. While traveling, he allowed himself a rare indulgence of eating some junk food at the airport. The thought crossed his mind that perhaps his odd behavior can be connected with his dietary transgression 3 days prior. He stopped consuming airport junk food and his irritability disappeared completely!
In this week's article we will look at the effect that food has on our behavior, mood, and wellbeing and we will look at dietary strategies that can be used to mitigate and reverse the symptoms of depression. Here we go!
I used to think that food was just something you consume to satisfy the tongue and fill the belly. Because of this view, I would reach for the tastiest foods, not placing much value on whether or not it was healthy for me. Only in the last couple years have I begun to recognize the effect that food has on my body. Now, when I suffer from brain fog, post lunch drowsiness, symptoms of depression, irritability, inability to focus or stay on task, the first question I ask myself is "did I eat something that could have caused this?"
I now know that food is intimately connected to human behavior. Food is like medicine that informs the body of which biological pathways to trigger. If you put junk into your body, then your body responds with junk. Likewise, if you nourish your body with wholesome, healthy foods, our body responds with energy, vitality, and healthfulness.
"Food is medicine. It is information. Food literally controls almost every function of your body and mind. And it connects almost everything that matters in our lives. Food connects us to one another and to our bodies; it can reinvigorate our health, bring families together, restore vibrant communities, improve the economy and the environment, reduce pollution, and even help our kids get better grades and avoid eating disorders, obesity, and drug abuse; food can even reduce poverty, violence, homicide, and suicide." -Dr. Mark Hyman
Unfortunately, most Americans do not realize that both physical and mental wellbeing is intimately tied to the food that we consume. Sadly, 60% of the modern American Diet consists of highly processed foods like bread, soda, chips, cookies and candy. Almost 20% of our daily calories comes from sugar sweetened beverages like soda, sports drinks, sweetened coffees and teas, and juice.
Considering the foods we are putting in our bodies, it is no wonder that one in five American adults experience mental illness. Almost 7 percent of American adults live with major depression, and that number continues to grow every year!
Food and Your Mood
The fact of the matter is that the food we eat has a profound effect on our mood and behavior. One study found that feeding prison inmates a healthy, wholesome diet reduced violent behavior by 56%! Adding a multivitamin to their daily routine brought violent offenses down by 80%!
Last month, a study was published in the medical journal, Psychosomatic Medicine, that looked at the effects of diet on symptoms of depression and anxiety. This study analyzed 16 randomized controlled trials, which included more than 45,000 participants. The results were clear: if you want to feel better, eat less junk.
Another study looked at consumption of sugar and its relationship to anxiety and depression. The researchers found that those consuming more than 67 grams of sugar per day were 23% more likely to develop anxiety or depression compared to those eating less than 40 grams per day over a time period of 5 years.
“People who eat a lot of fast food have about a 60 to 80 increased risk of developing depression, and those who eat a Mediterranean diet have a reduced risk of 40 to 50 percent." -Dr. Drew Ramsey
The 'SMILES' trial was the first randomized controlled trial to evaluate the relationship between dietary intervention and depressive symptomatology. 166 individuals were split into one of two groups. The first group received regular nutritional counseling and support. The second group received only social support and no nutritional guidance. The results were remarkable! 30% of participants in the nutritional intervention group achieved complete remission of major depression compared to only 8% in the social support group. Moreover, those who improved their diet the most also improved the most.
The science overwhelmingly indicates that food has the ability to directly influence the way we feel and behave. Given this fact, why is it that we continue to turn to anti-depressant medications as our primary form of treatment? Shouldn't a proper diet be the first intervention that we try?
The Problem with Processed Food
A simplistic definition of 'processed foods' is anything that requires packaging and a nutrition label. When you walk through the fresh produce section in your grocery store, barely anything is wrapped in any sort of packaging. You won't find a list of ingredients on a stalk of broccoli or a head of lettuce. You won't find added sugar in your oranges and apples. You won't find preservatives and artificial dies in your eggplants.
Walk on any other isle and the food paints a completely different picture. Sadly, "74% of products in the US food supply contain caloric or low-calorie sweeteners, or both." If you eat processed foods, you’re consuming a chemical cocktail with each bite. It is estimated the the average American consumes 5 pounds of additives and preservatives per year!
Why do we eat so much processed food? In the United States, grains are subsidized heavily, making them relatively cheap. Big food companies process these grains extensively to extend their shelf life and enhance their texture and appearance. Unfortunately, these foods are also stripped of their nutritional content while bring processed. So much so that vitamins often have to be added back in to make the nutrition label more attractive. You'll often find picture of fruit on the front of processed foods, creating an illusion that consumers are making a healthy choice. After all, fruit rolls ups are "Made With Real Fruit," so it must be healthy, right?
The issue with this logic is that food, as found in nature, is a complex package of nutrients that is more than a few vitamins thrown together.
“A whole food is a matrix of all these compounds and nutrients and minerals and vitamins — thousands of substances that interact with each other. If you add a synthetic vitamin to, say, refined white flour, it is not going to be as readily absorbed by the body or utilized in the same way as if you ate the whole grain.” -Kristin Lawless, author of Formerly Known as Food.
Food companies spend billions of dollars on food research every single year to make their products more appealing and more addicting to the average consumer. The result is a weird concoction of refined sugar, unnatural fats, and quasi proteins that some refer to as franken-foods rather than real food. These foods, depleted of their nutritional value and filled with artificial preservatives and additives are frankly making us fat, sick, and unhappy.
What should we do about it?
The Anti-depression Diet
If you want to reduce your symptoms of depression, it is clear that all processed foods and refined sugar should be avoided. So what exactly should you be eating if you are suffering from depression? To get the answers to this question, please follow my future blog posts by subscribing to my newsletter here. I will be blogging on this topic extensively in the coming weeks.
Dr. Ram Cheruvu, Pharm.D.
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