The Pandemic and the Mind

The pandemic is making us depressed and anxious – can healthy food provide relief?

To the average person, it may seem eminently reasonable to assume that food affects our brains along with the rest of our bodies. But only within the past decade or so have researchers begun to establish the crucial link between diet and the mind.

The U.K. Mental Health Foundation reports that food plays an important role not only in depression but in schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer’s disease as well.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed every aspect of our lives, including our eating habits. Comfort food was made for times like these, and it seems the healthy food trend that took root in recent years is reversing, at least for the time being. Shopping habits have shifted in favor of old processed favorites like frozen pizza, toaster waffles and canned spaghetti. These are convenience foods with long shelf lives that are designed to deliver pleasure. The typical American diet is often loaded with processed foods, pizza, fast food, white flour and sugary sodas.

Money is tight in many households, and busy parents are putting breakfast, lunch and dinner on the table instead of home cooking and using whole food. Open a box and there is dinner.  Besides, convenience foods are engineered  by the food industry to taste good and make us feel good at least in the short term.

But wait – there’s more. That’s because a growing body of research is showing that our food choices don’t just affect our waistlines. What we eat also may affect our mood and behavior. In other words, there may be something in the food we’re eating (or not eating) that’s influencing our state of mind.

The emerging field of nutritional psychology contends that modern western diets have contributed to increased rates of mental illness, particularly depression. Diets that follow a Mediterranean pattern of eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, fish and olive oil, have been linked to lower rates of depression. A diet change of just a few weeks has been found to lift moods. In a 2010 study, women who ate diets high in vegetables, fruit, fish and whole grains were less likely to suffer from depression.

As a third of all Americans are reporting that the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on their mental health, we might now need nutritious foods more than ever. One way to start is to simply cut down on “junk” foods and look for simple ways to prepare whole nutritious foods.

Source: Discover Magazine, September/October, 2020

Dietary Patterns

What are these dietary patterns that often claim successes over another pattern? This comparison offers a brief description of each pattern as well as the rationale for the claims.

 

Dietary Pattern Primary Characteristics Rationale
Low Carbohydrate Restriction of total carbohydrate to less than 45% caloriesHigh protein or either animal or plant origin Has recent and widespread interest. Can include a popular variation called the ketogenic diet (highly restrictive)
Low Fat (Vegetarian and traditional Asian) Restriction of total fat or 20% of daily calories. Some can include dairy and eggs, limited meat such as chicken and seafood Long-standing use, extensive research backup. Popularity is weak due to limited appeal; lack of taste
Low glycemic (blood sugar) Limits the glycemic load of certain vegetables and many if not all fruits. Relevant to diabetes and pertains to carbohydrate quality as to effects on blood glucose in the body.
Mediterranean Emphasis on olive oil, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, beans, limited meat, moderate wine included Mimics the traditional diets of Mediterranean countries. Associated with extensive research that emphasizes “healthy” fats

 

 

 

Mixed Balanced

Includes both plant and animal foods that conform to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, DASH and Diabetes Prevention diets Long-standing, widespread use. Associated with extensive research and intervention trials to address chronic diseases.
Paleolithic Focus on diet of our Stone Age ancestors. Avoiding processed foods with emphasis on fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, lean meats.Dairy and grains are excluded. Native human diet emphasis with substantial research. Emphasis on lean proteins.
Vegan Often exclude all animal products, including dairy and eggs. If ill-conceived, can include plant-based junk food leading to nutrient deficiencies. Relevant to ethics, animal welfare issues, environmental sustainability