May 10, 2013 1:00 pm
Updated: January 29, 2016 12:19 pm

Young Minds: Growing research backing nutrition’s role in mental health


When you walk through the grocery store aisle with Alan Logan, he sees food in an entirely different way.

“Anytime we see these deep greens, deep purples it’s a best friend to the brain,” Logan said.

Logan sees brain food.  A naturopathic doctor and author of The Brain Diet, he believes nutrition and its role has been undervalued historically in mental health care.

That’s changing.  Emerging research shows food can have a direct impact on mental health, warding off depression and helping to treat more serious disorders.

“Just like the heart or any other organ, the brain is dependent on nutrients for its function and its structure,” Logan said.

What we eat creates our neurotransmitters, proteins, amino acids – the building blocks that do the heavy lifting in our bodies.

The nutrition we get out of our foods – antioxidants, vitamins, healthy oils — help fuel our function, mood, and nerve cells that help our brains communicate.

“So this is quite remarkable in terms of how it is that nutrition can matter,” Logan said.

Diet matters.  Naturopathic doctor Alan Logan talks about how critical  nutrition is in the treatment and managements of our mental health. 

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Read more: Young Minds: Millennials facing increased rates of stress compared to other generations

A Mediterranean diet, rich with fresh produce, healthy oils, fish and lean protein, is most ideal, according to Logan.

The more colourful the fruit or vegetable, the more healthy it is: deep purple blueberries and grapes, ruby red beets, dark green spinach and leafy greens or orange carrots, for example.

The diet, popular in Spain, Greece and Italy, among other nations in the region, helps to bring down inflammation and improve function in the brain.

Studying food and mental health happiness

A 2009 study conducted by Spanish researchers considered the connection between what consumers eat and their emotional and psychological well-being.

About 10,000 healthy people were subjects in the six-year study. They filled in food diaries and were checked on to see if they followed the Mediterranean diet based on nine different criteria.

About 480 new cases of depression were recorded within four years.

Results showed that those who ate a Mediterranean diet reduced their risk of mental disorders by 30 per cent.

“We’re starting to see the same thing where in teens, the diet is predictive of depressive symptoms later on,” Logan said.

Scientists have also found that omega-3 fatty acids may help enhance medication, even anti-depressants.

Read more: Young Minds: Stress, anxiety plaguing Canadian youth

A 2010 Canadian Community Health Survey noted that deficiencies in nutrients like folic acid, magnesium and omega-3s were linked to a prevalence of depression.

The study even pointed to an “American or Westernized diet” as the culprit.

On the other end of the spectrum is processed foods — popular food staples for youth, stripped of nutrients, high in sugar and laden in fat. Plenty of research has also suggested that this unhealthy fare can actually trigger depression or make symptoms worse.

A 2012 study — one of many — found that fast food such as hamburgers, fries and pizza, were directly linked to depression.

Conducted by Spanish researchers in Granada, it found that fast food connoisseurs were 51 per cent more likely to develop depression compared to their counterparts who were staying away from the drive-thru.

Read more: Young Minds: Many boys not reaching out for mental health help

Making healthy food choices at an early age could set the path to a healthier mental state as well, Logan suggests.

“If nothing else, this conversation is so important because it sets the stage especially in teens. If they get into the habit of eating a healthy diet … it sets the stage for a lifetime of eating habits,” he said.

Nutrition and treating mental illness

At an Ontario mental health treatment centre, they believe in the power of nutrition and have made serving healthy food a priority.

“We have our overall philosophy of care is one based on recovery, and that’s about optimizing best possible health and we clearly see nutrition as part of that process, said Dr. Ian Dawe, Physician-in-Chief at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences.

They have observed that patients who eat a balanced diet maintain a healthier body weight, have higher levels of energy, require fewer medications and they’re more confident and social, according to Jason Moores, a nurse practitioner and Clinical Coordinator.

A healthy diet goes a long way for mental health patients, he said.

“If we can help patients to maintain a healthy body weight and maintain a healthy body image, this is more likely to help them with their mental illness,” Moores told Global News.

Jason Moores, nurse practitioner and clinical coordinator at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences speaks about the role nutrition plays for their patients. 

Read more: Young Minds: Stigma keeps youth suffering from mental health issues in the dark

At Ontario Shores, staff work with their metabolic and weight management clinic to ensure patients with mental illness are looked after in aspects of obesity, diabetes or high blood pressure while improving on their mental illness.

This week marks the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Week.

The organization estimates that the total number of 12 to 19 year olds at risk of depression is a staggering 3.2 million.

Children’s Mental Health Ontario is also marking its mental health week from May 5 to May 11.

A burgeoning area of research

Within the scientific community, the link between food and mental health is gaining in awareness. What was once a sprinkling of studies is now a burgeoning area of research.

An international group of experts is getting together for the first time on the issue next month  in Tokyo.  The International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research  (ISNPR) will explore diet and the role in preventing suicide, as well as the role of omega-3s in treating depression.

“Diet matters.  That’s the fundamental message. As the research emerges, we’re going to have a more clear idea of specific recommendations that can be made. But for now, we do know that these dietary patterns are very important,” Logan said.

© 2013 Shaw Media

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