There is a whole industry these days that is forever telling us to be mindful of what we eat and of the impact of food on our general well-being. Indeed blogs such as this one will also advocate the role of talking therapy in maintaining effective mental health. However, there is now good research to show that nutrition also plays a critical role in the maintenance of mental health and that we should watch what we eat, not just because it will impact on how we look, but because of its critical role in preventing mental illnesses.
The Mental Health Foundation found that the cost of mental ill health to the UK taxpayer has reached £100bn annually. There have been numerous explanations for this state of affairs ranging from globalisation and changes in economic stability to changing social trends and the consequential diminishing interpersonal networks.
Did you know that most of the brain is derived from food? Yet in modern times our diet has radically changed from that of our ancestors in how we process and refine our food, the role of food additives and the use of pesticides. It has also changed from the alteration of animal fats through intensive farming. It is estimated, for example, that the average person in industrialised countries will eat more than 4kg of additives every year.
There has also been an introduction of higher levels and different types of fat into our diet brought about by changing methods of farming. For example, chickens currently reach their slaughter weight twice as fast as they previously did (even compared to thirty years ago). This has radically changed the nutritional profile of the meat. A typical chicken carcass used to be 2% fat, but is now 22% fat. Additionally, the produce given to chickens has altered to an alarming extent which has reduced omega-3 fatty acids and increased omega-6 fatty acids in chicken meat.
How fats and amino acids work in our brains
According to the Impact of food on mental health report it is known that the ‘dry weight’ of the brain is composed of roughly 60% fat. The fats which we consume directly impact on the structure and substance of the brain cell membranes. Saturated fats – those that are hard at room temperature, like lard – make the cell membranes in our brain and body tissue less flexible. 20% of the fat in our brain is made from the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6. They are called ’essential’ as they cannot be manufactured within the body, therefore they must be derived directly from the diet. Each fatty acid performs vital functions in the structuring of brain cells (or neurons), ensuring that smooth communication is possible within the brain. Both are found in equal amounts in the brain, and it is believed they should be eaten in equal amounts.
The research undertaken by the Mental Health Foundation has found that unequal intakes of omega-3 and omega-6 fats are implicated in a number of mental health problems, including depression, concentration and memory problems. The nutritional experts have suggested that most people consuming Western diets eat far too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3.
To understand better the role of nutrition in the maintenance of good mental health and what you can do to offset possible negative effects of poor diet read the executive summary of the Feedings Minds report from the Mental Health Foundation.