The Surgeon General reports that about 20 percent of children and adolescents (under 18 yearolds) in the United States “have mental disorders with at least mild functional impairment”. Freidman et al., in 1996 reported that approximately 5 to 9 percent of children ages 9 to 17 suffer from a “serious emotional disturbance” which is basically defined as a diagnosable mental health problem that severely disrupts their ability to function socially, academically, and emotionally.
The incidence and prevalence of mental health problems in children and adolescents have increased greatly over the last four decades. The reasons for this are unclear and likely multifactorial. Part of this relates to the fact that, until the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was thought that children could not suffer from mental health problems and therefore even psychiatrists were not looking for that in children who were struggling. Other theories include exposure to environmental toxins, such as high levels of lead, higher exposure to violence through multimedia, an increase in poverty, loss of resources including public education, increased prevalence of single parents, less sleep, and less adult/parental supervision. Most significantly, clinical evidence and data are increasing that the common American diet, the “Western Diet” contributes greatly to the increasing prevalence of mental health problems.
On January 16, 2006, the Guardian, a news publication from the United Kingdom, ran a story on two published reports regarding diet and mental health. In it the author describes the two reports:
Both reports, which have been produced collaboratively, outline the growing scientific evidence linking poor diet to problems of behavior and mood. Rates of depression have been shown to be higher in countries with low intakes of fish, for example. Lack of folic acid, omega3 fatty acids, selenium and the amino acid tryptophan are thought to play an important role in the illness. Deficiencies of essential fats and antioxidant vitamins are also thought to be a contributory factor in schizophrenia.
The Western Diet is replete with foods that include fried foods, refined processed foods, caffeine, and sugar. All of these have some evidence of causing or contributing to mood and/or behavior problems. For example, in his book “In Defense of Food”, Michael Pollen describes a pattern over the last several decades of societies in which the Western Diet has become the predominant diet to have increased rates of heart disease, obesity, cancer, ADHD and depression. This may be partly due to the fact that the Western Diet contains less fish and therefore less Omega 3 Fatty Acids, and fewer vegetables and fruit and therefore fewer antioxidants than in past decades. Adding fuel to the fire, the production of refined and processed foods results in the removal of the micronutrients from the food such as Omega 3’s, fiber, minerals and vitamins. All of these nutrients likely play a role in the body’s ability to manufacture and optimize the use of the nuero-chemicals necessary for naturally managing anxiety, maintaining stable mood states, and for optimal attention and focus.
While the increased rate of mental illness has become an alarming concern, obesity in the United States has been described as an epidemic. The Center for Disease Control recently reported that, in the last 20 years, rates of obesity in children aged 25 years increased from 5% to 13.9%, 611 increased from 6.5% to 18%, and 1219 increased from 5% to 17.4%. Obesity puts people at risk for several physical health problems including heart problems and diabetes. It also puts people at higher risk for mental health problems. From 2001 – 2003, Dr. Gregory Simon and colleagues conducted a survey to look at obesity and mental health problems. They published the results in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2005. The findings were that obese people were 21% more likely to have major depression, 47% more likely to suffer from bipolar mood disorder and 27% more likely to have an anxiety disorder.
There are many plausible reasons why obesity in the United States is a problem that is, well, growing at a rapid rate. In the past 30 years, the US consumption of fast food, soft drinks, and processed foods has risen greatly. They are high in “empty” carbohydrates that tend to get turned into fat and are low in nutrition value. Additionally, the high level of simple sugars can contribute to poor energy utilization by the body and potential insulin resistance or diabetes.
The best diet for both mental and physical health appears to be the oldest and simplest one we know of. It is one that provides antioxidants and fats, proteins and carbohydrates from a wide source of fresh produce and from animals raised on natural grasses and not processed grains. Granted, it is a more expensive diet, at times may not taste as good, and it does take time and effort to follow. I guess the real question is how much is good physical and mental health worth?
Just a little food for thought.