Diet to lose weight; diet to build muscle; diet for your mind?
A quick Google search of nutrition and diets will ultimately show results for the first two but what about our minds, our brains; what about the most important organ in the human body? What about diets for mental health?
Nutrition is one of the hottest topics of the last decade. Diet books sell by the truck loads, TV commercials show stars and athletes talking about weight loss formulas, ship-to-home dietary meals and muscle-building supplements; hell, people are checking food packaging labels in every supermarket.
Now it’s time for grey matter to matter. It’s time to take a slightly deeper look into nutrition for the brain. Diets for mental health and those related to addiction recovery share the same goal: to use the fuel we ingest to better our own mental capacity, to aid us in our daily lives.
Our brains are composed of fat (so the term fat head might be closer to home than we once thought). So all the cell membranes and thus, connections in the noodle upstairs, are either made of fat or rely on fat to get the job done.
“What job is that?” you may ask.
Well, practically everything you need the brain for. Better brain connectivity means better brain communication, which means better living. There are studies like The Sun Project that link depression, anxiety, and erratic moods to our diets. Because the brain uses about 30% of all the energy that enters our bodies (mostly from food), we better make sure we are eating well, and we better make sure we get the fats we need. Simple.
“So the brain is fat and it needs fat. Aren’t fats super bad for us? I mean, don’t we diet to get rid of fat?”
Another great question concerned citizen! Before we go into that, I’d like to quote George Bernard Shaw, an Irish author and seriously quotable guy.
“No diet will remove all the fat from your body because the brain is entirely fat. Without a brain, you might look good, but all you could do is run for public office.”
- B. Shaw
Without that fat we might be pretty and simple minded as Mr. Shaw suggests. But like everything else in this world, there’s a yin and yang – good fats and bad fats.
Let’s start with the bad the stuff (if you take anything form this reading, it’s the idea to not eat this stuff).
The Bad Fats:
So, fats are the most important part of diets for mental health. Got it.
Remember when KFC started that whole “0 trans fats” campaign a few years ago. It became, and still is, sort of a thing around food. Some Doritos packets even say “0 grams of trans fat!”
Well it turns out that the FDA deemed all industrial-made trans fats unsafe at any level back in 2006 and mandated that food packaging start labeling trans fats.
In 2011 The Sun Project determined that trans fatty acids (TFA) cause a whole heap of issues. Here’s a quote from the study’s findings:
“A detrimental relationship was found between TFA intake and depression risk, whereas weak inverse associations were found for MUFA, PUFA, and olive oil. These findings suggest that cardiovascular disease and depression may share some common nutritional determinants related to subtypes of fat intake.” 1
In regards to the topic about the brain, the study found the link to depression. It’s also well known that trans fatty acids (TFA) displace the good fats that our brains use to communicate2. Is that why we get all upset and irritated after a long period of fast food bingeing or is that just me?
These fats mess with your mood and are the bullies in the brain kicking out good omega 3 fats and stealing their lunch money (probably to buy something unhealthy at the cafeteria, am I right?).
“Where are these TFAs hiding?”
Well, here’s the not-so-surprising part: it’s in almost all the bad food you can think of. Baked goods including all the crusts, fast food such as french fries, anything fried or battered really, popcorn, ice cream – pretty much all the stuff you want to eat after you’ve been dumped and you’re going to marathon some TV show on Netflix. This is the very opposite of any good diet for addiction recovery.
More than that, it is in almost all the food you can think of, period. Most places use vegetable oil in food production and that’s where the trans fats come from.
You could always look at the label and stay away from food that has trans fats, right? Not really. See, if the serving size has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, then the company can round it down to zero. Thus, after a tub of chunky monkey ice cream you could have ingested 5 grams of trans fats.
Hitting the gym to lose that weight is fine but you aren’t seeing what your brain is going through.
The Good Fats:
Omega 3 fatty acids, Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Monounsaturated Fatty Acids
This is what the brain needs and wants. You’ll find it in salmon, shrimp (most seafood actually), cauliflower, brussels sprouts, spinach (all the above ground veggies; the more raw the better), eggs, beef and milk from grass fed cows (interestingly, the more whole the milk the better – nonfat milk is hurting your brain) and a whole host of seed oils including flaxseed.
Eating these foods with omega 3 and foods that have high trans fats won’t help though because remember: trans fatty acids displace omega 3 fatty acids in the brain. You have to try to cut out the TFA as much as possible, having zero in the diet would be the best.
The next step is to get your brain on the path to better focus. The good news is that if you follow the plan above, that will naturally happen. Two birds, one stone.
Nora Gedgaudas, author of Beyond the Paleo Diet has a great analogy for us. The current trend seems to be eating 5 small meals a day, but that’s like feeding a fire with twigs and kindling. The fire is always going out and we are always tired and crashing (time to go get that Five Hour Energy!).
“Is there something we can eat that satisfies us, leaves us alert for hours and is good for the brain?”
Well that’s where the good fats come in. According to Nora, we should be eating the good fats and they will fill us up!3 And it’s not just Nora saying this; Harvard nutritionists agree,4 fitness gurus are on board,5 and the American Heart Association says it’s all okay!6 Our bodies are 99% evolved to eat the way we did way back before agriculture and all the bad stuff we eat today. Those diets consisted mostly of fats and fibers.
Instead of planning all the meals for the next day and spending so much time eating them, eat when you’re hungry, and eating the good fats means much less hunger because they are the big logs on the fire!
PLUS, if we remember that almost all baked goods and fried things are loaded with trans fats, eliminating carbs in place of good fats will also help our brain feel great and we will avoid things like depression.
Great brain function, less time eating and preparing 5 meals a day, more alertness and less hunger pangs – Win, Win, Win!
When it comes to diets for mental health, and diets for addiction recovery, fat is the key. Some fats are bad, namely trans fatty acids. They affect the functions of the brain and cause things like depression. Other fats – namely omega 3, polyunsaturated fats, and monounsaturated fats – are good, promoting good brain function.
Most fattening foods are usually loaded with bad fat. They degrade brain function and are also a part of our modern diet in a big way, so most people have to eat 5 small meals daily and deal with hunger and concentration issues. Eating the good fats helps the brain function but also allows for less time eating, no hunger pangs, and its good for the waist line.
Everything in moderation! Don’t go downing fat from a glass. Eat for the feeling after, not during.
And hey, we’re all human, it’s difficult for anyone to deny themselves the pleasure of trans fats as well; but try to be more conscious. If you are tired all the time and you feel low, try upping the GOOD fats in your diet.
 The Sun Project DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0016268: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0016268
 Emily Deans, MD. Harvard TED Talk on food and mental health: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6a3IBE0dJAo
 Nora Gedgaudas Paleo-Diet Presentation, Australia:
 Harvard study to end the myth on bad fat:
 Jullian Michaels facts about fat:
 Health.org and American Heart Association: