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The Link Between Food, Diet and Mental Health

By: , Posted on: July 29, 2016

Humans have long recognized food as essential for survival and growth, but have also fostered beliefs that what they eat may exert an influence on how they think, feel, and behave.

In ancient Egypt, for example, onions were thought to be an aphrodisiac, while the early Romans believed the same to be true of eggs and chervil. During the Middle Ages, fig and truffles were used in an attempt to excite the sexual passions, but capers and lettuce were chosen if one wished to dampen erotic impulses. And by the late 1800s, John Harvey Kellogg (of corn flakes fame) decried the eating of meat as inducing headache, depression, and mental illness among other afflictions. Although somewhat amusing by twenty-first century standards, such beliefs nevertheless share the notion that diet and behavior are connected, and that certain foods have a bearing on mental functioning.

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Diet and Behavior

In his 1825 treatise on the physiology of taste, Brillat-Savarin (1825) may have been overly imaginative in prescribing a meal of duck and asparagus in order to induce dreaming, but he was among the first to document the stimulating effects of caffeine on the brain when he stated “There is no doubt but that coffee greatly excites the cerebral faculties.” Far from being ludicrous, the belief that food or diet quality can affect mental health is not so far-fetched, with current research in nutrition and psychology validating the connection.

coffee beans

Before examining the direct linkages that have been shown between nutrition and mental health, it may be useful to begin with an example of how poor nutritional status in general can impair overall mental functioning. In their classic ‘Minnesota Experiment’ conducted after World War II, Keys et al. (1950) deliberately placed a cohort of conscientious objectors on a severe calorically reduced diet for a period of 6 months. Beyond the expected weight loss and physiological effects, the investigators were more impressed with the change in scores in ‘moodiness,’ ‘concentration,’ and ‘depression’ that accompanied the young men’s semi-starvation. Although an experiment of this nature is unlikely to ever be attempted again, recent results from survey research indicate that food insufficiency – in plain terms simply not having enough to eat – is associated with dysthmia, or less severe depression, in adolescents and poorer mental health in adults. Of course, although biological mechanisms must certainly be at work, it should also be recognized that the economic and familial stressors that accompany food insecurity would very likely contribute to depression.

Nutrient Deficiencies and Mental Health

Aside from general undernutrition, it is in the realm of nutrient deficiencies that more direct connections can be made between dietary constituents and mental health. For example, iodine deficiency has been linked to lower achievement motivation in children, and vitamin B6 deficiency has been shown to be highly prevalent in psychiatric patients with endogenous depression, a sub-class of clinical depression (Worobey et al., 2006).

Bodnar and Wisner (2005) identified three circumstances in which nutrition could conceivably be effective in improving mental health. First, in cases where nutrient deficiencies are known to exist and dietary intake can be altered or specific vitamin or mineral supplements provided; second, in cases where the individual has a genetic abnormality that increases her nutrient requirements, for example, a gene mutation that compromises folate metabolism; and third, in cases where antidepressant medications may be ineffective in an individual who is poorly nourished. How severe a deficiency must be before it exerts a marked impact on brain functioning has been underexplored, and relatively little is known about the level of nutrient supplementation necessary in order to correct inadequate absorption or facilitate medical treatment. Nonetheless, some promising associations between nutrients and mental health do exist. Read more about them in the article Food, Nutrition, and Mental Health by J Worobey.

encyclopedia of mental health

Food, Nutrition, and Mental Health by J Worobey is included in the recently published Encyclopedia of Mental Health edited by Howard Friedman, which presents a comprehensive overview of the many genetic, neurological, social, and psychological factors that affect mental health, also describing the impact of mental health on the individual and society and illustrating the factors that aid positive mental health. Check it out here.

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Food Science & Nutrition

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