People in my generation grew up with pretty “laissez-faire” eating habits. We ate a lot of processed food, drank soda, and were fairly unaware of the benefits of a proper diet. I still remember ordering my daily “pizza stix” from the lunch line at my school cafeteria! The public awareness of organic food, a low-carb lifestyle, and the general principles of healthy eating were not espoused like they are today.
The question is, since we now know how beneficial or detrimental diet can be to your health, how much damage did we do? You are what you eat, quite literally. The American diet is unhealthy for a variety of reasons, but is it a coincidence that we now have higher rates of ADD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and loads of other behavioral problems? I would say that it’s not, and the evidence supports this view.
Our parents and grandparents grew up in a very different world. They weren’t surrounded by the constant onslaught of fast food ads. They had more vitamins and minerals in their meals. They got more sleep. They didn’t have cell phones or social media accounts. They got more exercise. It was a very different world. But their diet was also different, and that’s the biggest influencing factor of all.
The studies supporting the effects of diet on mental and physical health are numerous. Take the recent finding that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil or nuts may counteract age-related cognitive decline. This study also found that a low-fat diet was detrimental to cognitive performance. Other studies have shown that what you eat not only affects you, but your children as well. As this study notes, “the research field of fetal programming has developed tremendously over the years and increasing knowledge suggests that both maternal and paternal unbalanced diet can have long-lasting effects on the health of offspring”.
So all those slices of pizza may be having a lasting impact on you, as well as your children. Depending on what you eat, this could be good news — or it could be terrible news. As other studies have indicated, the prevalence of obesity in the United States has increased dramatically since 1975. Diet has a very wide range of implications on many things besides obesity, however, with some studies even showing that diet may have a significant role in the development of an overactive bladder. This shouldn’t be surprising, since your diet affects every part of your body (your cells need energy, after all), but it’s information most people don’t think about on a daily basis.
Other studies have even shown that your skin is largely affected by your diet. Though some in the Paleo community will not be shocked by this information, it should make you stop and think. It’s startling, at first brush, to realize that your skin can be so drastically affected by dietary choices. You can literally change your outer appearance by simply changing what’s on your plate. And I don’t mean that in an “I have 5 vanity pounds to lose” way. The thickness of your hair, the smoothness of your skin – diet alters them both.
How Your Diet Can Change Your Mood
Again, food has much more of an effect on us than we care to admit. Studies have shown that not only the amount of food, but also the type of food, are important factors in modifying the effects of drugs. Also of interest: epidemiological studies continue to show the role of folate and vitamin B12 in mood disorders. The links between diet and attention disorders are also fairly obvious in the scientific literature. Even 3 years ago, scientists knew that diets that were sugar-restricted and additive/preservative-free could help reduce symptoms associated with ADHD. They also routinely recommend fatty acid supplementation across the board – not just for those with attention disorders.
It’s also worth noting one study’s results, which found that psychological factors influence both the probability of choosing a vegetarian diet and the probability of developing a mental disorder. Severe mental trauma or past health issues may cause a desire for a drastic lifestyle change, such as an the adoption of a vegetarian diet. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that vegetarian diets cause mental disorders, but instead are related to “an elevated risk of mental disorders.”
Other studies have (unsurprisingly) found evidence of a significant, cross-sectional relationship between unhealthy dietary patterns and poor mental health in children. And before you go crazy on a very unhealthy, extremely calorically-restricted diet, consider that evidence has shown that negative physiological and psychological effects of dieting may outweigh aesthetic and health benefits. Food for thought. In fact, it seems more likely in the scientific community that a poor diet may be a causative factor of poor mental health. One study notes that consumption of convenient, high-fat, or high-sugar foods is now “normal”. But these foods are directly at odds with our evolutionary past, and are undermining optimal nutritional status, while also having untold effects on the microbiome and even the brain. Have I gotten your attention yet?
Other researchers are more direct, and state that “the ingestion of a high-fat diet and the resulting obese state can exert a multitude of stressors on the individual including anxiety and cognitive dysfunction.” It must be noted here, that their version of a high-fat diet is one that is high in bad fats, and also high in sugar. This isn’t a Paleo or Mediterranean diet. Besides the poor effects of the Western diet, many in the Paleo community are also aware of the gut’s link to mental health. As scientists have found, the link between psychiatric disorders (including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) and irritable bowel syndrome is pronounced.
Recent research shows that normal gut and brain function is largely controlled by the gut microbiome – meaning that the standard American diet will cause dysfunction in the gut and in the brain. As has been shown multiple times in the scientific literature, a diet high in grains, carbohydrates and sugar alters your microbiome for the worse – in turn affecting your brain’s health. By contrast, good dietary choices help influence things in a positive fashion. This means lots of protein, if you’re looking to build muscle.
Since satiety (the feeling of fullness) is increased with protein and fat in the diet, these two elements are keys to weight loss, as well. But choosing the right fats and protein are crucial. Grass-fed protein sources will be best, and if you’re looking for fish, go with wild-caught. Fats are vital too, and coconut oil, olive oil, almonds and avocados are some of your best choices. Human physiology has not changed much in the last 100 years, and while the science is advancing, our food supply is being altered radically, as well.
This results in more work needing to be done to find high quality food — but it doesn’t change those choices. With all the scientific evidence now available, the benefits of a good diet should be clear. But to many, they remain an afterthought — an elusive, “maybe one day I’ll eat better” ideal.
With obesity now being a pandemic, this is important information to have in mind, and more importantly – to share with your children. There are now almost 8 billion people in the world and what we consume is something that each of us – individually – has control over. Remember: you are what you eat.