If eating fruits and vegetables could reduce your risk of developing depression by as much as 62%, would you eat the first apple you could grab? I would and I did…except it was a pear.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the mounting evidence that the standard American diet (SAD – it’s right there in the acronym), laden with processed foods, excess sugar, and copious amounts of red meat, wreaks havoc on a person’s health. What many people don’t know is those same foods have a negative impact on both physical and mental health.
The evidence that dietary choices can either increase or decreases a person’s risk for depression is mounting. Let’s run through some statistics compiled by Dr. Michael Greger, author of How Not to Die, and Dr. Drew Ramsey, author of Eat Complete:
Our brain burns roughly 420 calories per day (which equals about 20% of calories consumed)
Consumption of Industrial trans fat (often labeled as “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” on lists of ingredients) increases the risk of depression by 42%
An estimated 2 billion people on the planet are iron deficient. If this was reversed, the average IQ on Earth would increase by 13 points
Iron deficiency causes incapacitating low energy, a foggy brain, and sadness (all symptoms associated with depression)
Low folate intake may increase depression as much as threefold
Consumption of aspartame has been linked to an increase in irritability and depression
More than 6,000 food products contain aspartame
Our bodies, brains included, require essential nutrients to achieve maximum functionality…or in less robotic terms: the food we eat is directly responsible for our overall health and wellness.
The number of food philosophies vying for top billing is dizzying. Whole 30, the Mediterranean Diet, the Blood Type Diet, Paleo, Keto, Vegan, Vegetarian, Plant-based, Whole Food – all diets with (alleged) scientific evidence backing the efficacy of each unique nutritional plan. The conversation about what we eat and why we should eat it is densely populated with boisterous claims.
Both How Not to Die and Eat Complete prioritize medical studies over diet plans. Dr. Greger and Dr. Ramsey synthesize the latest medical research in the field of nutritional psychiatry, the impact of nutrition on mental health. The results of these studies largely equate to the relationship between food, depression, and dementia. The overlap in their findings leads to a pretty simplistic shared truth: Stop eating junk, start eating a diversity of nutrients. While you’re making the switch, meet the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for each of those nutrients.
Dr. Ramsey breaks his dietary recommendations into 21 essential nutrients for optimal brain health. His book, Eat Complete, (it’s a cookbook too!) examines the impact of each of these nutrients on different elements of brain functioning. Eat Complete has a handy chart that provides each essential nutrient, the RDA, a list of foods containing the nutrient, and suggested recipes loaded with that nutrient.
Dr. Greger’s book, How Not To Die, is about the broader interplay of nutrition and disease. He breaks his book into two sections, one with a chapter dedicated to an individual disease that can be managed or prevented by nutritional changes. Think diabetes, high blood pressure, breast cancer, and suicidal depression. The second half of the book looks at food groups and what nutritional components they bring to a well-balanced diet. Dr. Ramsey looks at the part, Dr. Greger looks at the whole.
Their findings are identical with one exception, whether or not to consume meat. Dr. Ramsey finds it nearly impossible to consume all 21 essential elements without eating wild-caught seafood, grass-fed red meat, and antibiotic-free poultry. Dr. Greger believes eating meat is more harmful than helpful.
Let’s break their recommendations for reducing your risk of depression and dementia into two easily digestible bites:
Eliminate industrial trans fats. The easiest way to avoid this category of trans fat is to reduce the amount of processed food you consume. If the food product’s list of ingredients includes “partially hydrogenated oil,” put it back on the shelf.
Replace with the RDA of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Eating nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, and fish boosts brain growth and functioning, reduces inflammation, and keeps your brain cells alive.
While we’re at it, please eliminate your fear of healthy fat. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are critical to maximizing your brain and your body’s health. For example, low levels of Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to depression and suicide, as well as diabetes and heart disease. The RDA for healthy fat consumption is roughly 200 – 400 calories.
Eliminate dominance of meat on the plate. The average American eats 222 pounds of meat in a year. Healthy protein intake, from a variety of plant and animal sources, should average 0.8g per kg of body weight. When I used this equation, I learned I over consume protein by roughly 12 grams per day.
Replace with dominance of fruits and vegetables on the plate. The greater the variety of colors, the greater the variety of polyphenols. Your parents were right, eat the rainbow. One study of 1,000 elderly men and women found those who ate tomatoes or tomato products daily had half the odds of depression compared to those who only ate them once a week. Increasing your consumption of polyphenols has also been shown to increase brain growth. Yes, it really does pay to eat buckets of spinach and kale.
How Not to Die and Eat Complete are eye-opening to just how dramatically certain nutrient deficiencies impact our mental wellbeing. The list of symptoms associated with vitamin B1 deficiency read like my self-evaluation sheet at St. Joseph’s Behavioral Health Unit: low energy, apathy, brain fog, irritability, and physical weakness. B12 deficiencies cause depression, anemia, and in some cases, psychotic symptoms like extreme paranoia. Low iron intake decreases physical, mental and emotional performance.
Anytime we want to make a lasting change, we need to get radically honest with ourselves. After reading both of these books, it’s time to address my secret food shame. Oven-roasted cauliflower and sweet potatoes excluded, I hate vegetables. Eating spinach and kale feels like a chore. On average, I’d estimate the number of different vegetables I eat in a week is 6 (if I count onions and garlic). My plate isn’t 50 shades of beige, but it sure ain’t a rainbow either. As a result of this particular hatred, most of my meals are meat-centric.
My partner and I agreed to make a few changes to the way we eat to reduce our intake of meat and to increase the diversity of the fruits and vegetables we consume. We are:
Making protein smoothies for breakfast with leafy greens, frozen fruit, ground flax seeds, and cashew butter or 1/2 an avocado. We disagree on which fat leads to a tastier smoothie. There is a small uprising to overthrow both fat options for peanut butter.
Buying higher quality meat from local farmers. We live in Napa, it’s basically inexcusable not to make this change.
Committing to a weekly at-home dinner lineup of 2 vegetarian meals, 2 seafood meals, 2 chicken, pork, or red meat meals.
We’re also spending the next few weeks cooking from Eat Complete to help us commit to these changes. Sorry y’all, if you want to make these recipes you need to buy the book. Copyright infringement and what not). This week we’re tackling:
Curried Cauliflower-Garlic Soup with Cashews
Quinoa-Mushroom Frittata with Fresh Herbs
Grass-fed Beef Tenderloin with Pan-roasted Apples and Fennel
Mussels with Garlicky Kale Ribbons and Artichokes
Paprika Shrimp with Peppadew Peppers and Carrot-Sweet Potato Puree
Collard and Prosciutto Chicken Roulades Over Watercress Salad
Spiced Carrot Bars … because dessert deserves to be part of the meal plan. Always.
There are a lot of barriers to cooking at home, eating vegetables, and turning down pizza at every turn. Are you ready to face one of your nutritional barriers with some of your own radical honesty? Maybe it’s time to start packing your lunch, or reading labels in the grocery store, maybe eat a little more seafood. The evidence from the growing field of nutritional psychiatry makes it clear, your brain will benefit from the investments you’re ready to make.
If you’re ready to switch over to a more whole foods-based diet, I have a lot of clean eating options on my Pinterest “Delish” board. You’ll even find a sprinkling of vegetarian and vegan recipes there too.
DISCLAIMER: I can’t proclaim nutritional changes will eradicate your depression or anxiety. I’m not a doctor and I cannot give medical advice. Mental health is complex and oftentimes requires a multi-pronged treatment approach. Personally, managing my mental health requires a combination of fitness, yoga, meditation, nutrition, sleep hygiene, acupuncture, talk therapy, and medication. Integrating each of those components improves both my physical and mental health, creating a greater sense of overall well-being.