Are you feeling low? Do you struggle with feelings of depression or anxiety, mood swings, helplessness and hopelessness? Well, it’s probably because you’re not eating enough tomatoes! Although it might be a lack of seeds. You see, apparently, the fat in seeds makes it easier for the body to absorb the protective nutrients in vegetables…
This is, largely, nonsense. The people who recommend that we diet away depression are usually leading us down a dangerous path. While eating more tomatoes or seeds or walnuts or blueberries won’t do us any physical harm, there’s definitely something damaging about encouraging the rhetoric that we are what we eat and, if we’re experiencing depression, it’s because we don’t know how to feed ourselves. Anyone who has struggled with depression will know that if tomatoes do work, momentarily, it’s only because the suggestion that they might cure the condition is so ridiculous that it could raise a brief smile.
However, the field of “nutritional psychiatry” is a growing one and, while there are plenty of charlatans claiming that a kale and turmeric smoothie will make everything better, there are also a number of researchers seriously considering the impact food has on our mental wellbeing. Dr Mark Haub, a researcher at Kansas State University, has been studying nutritional psychiatry for over 10 years. He says, “We know there’s a link between food and mental health and mental status, especially depression.” Data can be difficult to capture because it can be difficult to get study subjects to stick to an eating plan, and Haub admits that the field is saturated with unqualified people making confusing claims, explaining, “I think we have fewer scientists and more health-promotion experts, and we need more scientists.” One of the most successful studies shows that a healthy diet reduced depressive episodes among patients who were already using medication, with the implication being that a healthy diet isn’t a substitute for antidepressants, but it might help them to work more effectively.
Even the most cynical of us will admit that what we eat can have a significant impact on our mood. I try to avoid Haribo because, when I get my hands on a packet, I tear through it, only to experience the kind of extreme sugar crash that makes me feel low to the point of tearfulness. If I mistime an afternoon Diet Coke, I feel tense and twitchy long into the night. My husband can neck fizzy caffeine all night long, but he feels knackered and grumpy after a big bowl of pasta.
Still, there’s a real culture of blaming and shaming, and a sense that if you’re struggling and unhappy, it’s your fault for making poor choices
Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College, London, has researched the fact that our bodies process food in a way that is sometimes dramatically different. On the You’re Doing It Wrong podcast, he told Adam Buxton, “I had a glucose monitor attached to me – it turns out I responded really well to potatoes and pasta, but red grapes and freshly squeezed orange juice made me diabetic. I tested my wife and she had the opposite reaction. Potatoes caused her glucose to double, but grapes had no effect.” When we think about the myriad reactions that the same food can trigger in different bodies, it makes sense that our brains will react entirely differently, too. When food is affecting the chemical balance of our bodies in such dramatically different ways, we can’t afford not to explore the impact diet has on our mental wellbeing.
I think there are many troubling similarities in the way we talk about antidepressants and mental health, and the way we discuss diets. Both are subject to a lot of scaremongering. There’s an enormous volume of information about both, but much of it is confusing and inconsistent. Worst of all, there’s a real culture of blaming and shaming, and a sense that if you’re struggling and unhappy, it’s your fault for making poor choices.
Haub’s work takes on a different resonance if we flip it over and think about the impact that restrictive diets can have on our mental health. When my body image is poor, and I’m exhausted because I’ve eaten fewer calories than I need, I start to feel very low. However, when I’m not actively pursuing weight loss, I still choose to eat a reasonably healthy diet – but I feel more refreshed and mentally energised. There’s an entire movement dedicated to intuitive eating, in which you eat what you crave, when you’re hungry, and learn to stop when you’re full. It’s not about changing the food you eat, but the way you eat – and noticing the way your body and mind respond.
As someone who has struggled with eating disorders, this seems like a quiet revolution. I wish I’d known about it when I was recovering from anorexia and trying to work out how to eat. It would have helped me to re-establish a relationship between my body and my brain.
Ultimately, there will never be a one-size-fits-all cure for mental illness and there will never be one miracle food or nutrient that makes everyone feel better. Dr Haub explains: “If it’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true, so always be sceptical of anyone who says they know what works for everybody.” However, I hope it means that, in the future, we’ll all start to take a more holistic approach to mental health. Just like our bodies, our brains need specific fuel in order to run quickly and smoothly. We’re so much more than what we eat, but it’s still worth exploring the fact that food has an impact on the way we function.