Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Food, depression and the disconnect

Are the pies making us depressed, or is it just society?

One of the main problems with contemporary nutritional science is its blatant reductionism. The body systems and nutrition are incredibly complicated and science can only really pluck at stray threads or stare endlessly in pixels and then make gross generalisations - although to be fair, the grossness is usually the fault of the media.  I just Jennifer Bowden's recent nutrition column in the recent Listener magazine exploring the link between diet and mental health. Surprisingly good food for thought, considering my general opinion of generic mainstream nutritional information.  She sites a number of studies that show a correlation between conditions like depression and eating fast foods and commercial baked goods.

I can see a personal correlation here. I started craving high calorie processed foods at the onset of puberty.  Around the time I was eating gorging on spaghetti and cheese toasted sandwiches and pies I was also diagnosed with depression.  I'm not sure if being tired and overwhelmed with emotional turmoil makes me more likely to eat pies or the other way around. Bowden sites several longitudinal studies showing that over a period of 5 years the consumers of more Western, processed foods were more likely to go on to develop depression. It's not all that hard to believe.  This is the first time in history our bodies have been swamped with an onslaught of highly processed flour, sugar and vegetable oil.  After tens of thousands of years of various less-processed diets, we have only had fast-food for less than a hundred and while it's easy to swallow, it's notoriously hard to digest.  I wonder if the food-depression connection has anything to do with serotonin, one of the main brain chemicals involved in happiness, being produced in the digestive system.

Bowden's article has a lot of good points: winter correlates with emotional disorders; and it isn't all that hard to believe that more fresh fruits and vegetables, more home-cooked meals and less bakery pies and late night drive-through snack missions are good for overall mental health.  It certainly puts a different spin on comfort eating.  What is really missing here is the connection between processed food and the rest of Western society which is often experienced as alienating and blah.  Likewise, you can gorge on all the Mediterranean style meals you want and still be eating out of the lap of corporate consumerism rather than growing your own food (which I'm sure is good for mental wellbeing) or supporting community innitiatives (also warm and fuzzy).

One final thing that did bother me about Bowden's column is that she mentions winter and less vitamin D correlating with mood difficulties but, at the end of the article her description of a Mediterranean diet includes lean meats and fat free dairy.  Not only is this a very strange perversion of traditional Mediterranean food; ever heard of Greeks trimming all the far off their roast lamb? Ever heard of traditional fat-free Greek yogurt? It also blatantly disregards the vitamin D contained in animal fats.  To be fair, it's not her version of a Greek diet, she is just describing one that is being used in trials to see if it makes a difference in mental health.  I just wish our residual puritan terrified-of-fat contemporary Western nutritional paradigm would get some more perspective.


  1. Right on Isa, and I totally concur on the fat phobia that seems to have set in when I was still a kid (and loved my scrambled eggs cooked in bacon grease). In our house we only buy butter, not margarine. We go through the big 4L tins of olive oil, source our raw full-cream milk from a local organic farmer, and cook our roasts and steaks with the fantastic, grass-fed, omega-3-laden "wrapping" intact.

    Cholesterol is actually a critical dietary factor when babies' brains are developing up to at least 24 months. Omega-3 has been linked to well-being and consumption of lots of fish probably wards off seasonal depression among people who live in the far north. I definitely have felt more positive on the whole since coming to NZ and adopting my present-day eating habits. And I still weigh about what I did when I was a teenager.

  2. I agree. Cholesterol is a very important substance in the body but it gets a bad rap. It's essential for tissue repair and is a precursor to hormones among other things. A correlation between high blood cholesterol and heart disease being interpreted as dietary fat = heart disease is exactly the kind of reductionism that nutritional science is guilty of. Never mind that dietary cholesterol is broken down by bile in the digestive tract. Could it just be that the body, in a state of trying to repair itself, is producing more cholesterol or could it be more related to trans fats from oxidised vegetable oil? It is very hard to tell.

    I think that rather than zooming in on all these little details to find answers we need to start looking at the patterns on biological, individual, community and greater-societal levels to figure out what is going wrong and how to remedy it.

  3. Good fats are key. I was vegan/gluten free for years and my body, particularly my skin, suffered as a result. I took to pouring olive oil over food before eating it. I now eat eggs and cheese and still a fair bit of olive oil, and do feel heaps better.
    When I am depressed, I am much more likely to eat industrialised crap. When I am making soup for the week ahead, and have sprouts on the go, or have been in garden for the afternoon, then I feel good. And then I tend to eat well.

  4. Veganism is interesting. There is a strong moral imperative to walk lightly on the earth but it is also well within the territory of Western elitist privilege. I have met a handful of seemingly healthy vegans and several handfuls of those with pallid complexions and sunken eyes. I imagine it's tricky getting the right kinds of oils and fats as well as B complex and fat soluble vitamins. In my opinion eggs are one of the perfect foods, as is good quality chocolate: containing all three macro-nutrients as well as an vast assortment of micro and trace nutrients. Sprouts are also awesome although I never seem to keep up with them. I'm really feeling the need for soup lately with winter setting in.