Let your food cheer you up

David Servan-Schreiber examines how what we eat can affect our mental health


Let your food cheer you up

Even now, I can still remember the nutrition course I took at medical school. It could be summed up in four points: overweight people should consume fewer calories; those with heart disease should cut down on cholesterol; diabetics should eat less sugar; and people with high blood pressure should reduce their salt intake. End of class. When I went on to specialise in neuropsychiatry, it was even simpler: not a word on the relationship between food and mental health, and specifically nothing concerning depression.

It took me 20 years to realise that a doctor like me knew much less about the way our food and our health are related than the average Psychologies reader. Yet, in the course of my work, I often came across patients such as Brendan, a civil servant in his fifties. Since childhood, he had suffered from fatigue, poor concentration, low energy levels and lack of motivation. Brendan had never really felt ‘fully operational’ or ‘like other people’. He’d lived for years with the diagnosis of chronic depression, untreatable by drugs. That was until the day a doctor – more up to date with the latest developments than myself – asked him a few questions about his eating habits. His diet mainly consisted of meat, fried food, white bread, cakes, dishes with sauce or gravy and dairy products. He also liked his puddings and other sweet things. Little by little, his doctor moved him on to a more Mediterranean diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, more fish, largely cutting out puddings and sweets, and white flour. One day, Brendan woke up feeling like it was the first day of spring. The fog in his head had cleared, the tiredness had gone, he had a sense of physical lightness he’d never felt before. He felt like he was, for the first time, truly himself. I wouldn’t mention this case if it were a one-off, or even one of a dozen examples. But a study has recently confirmed the link between the typical northern European/north American diet and depression.

Researchers from the French National Institute For Health and Medical Research working in collaboration with University College, London, have demonstrated that people with the most ‘northern European’ eating habits are almost 60 per cent more likely to suffer from depression. This can probably be explained by the fact that sugar, white flour and animal fats exacerbate inflammation processes in our bodies and brains, releasing molecules that act on our neurons, and influence our thoughts and mood. The most interesting thing here isn’t the fact that what we eat affects our minds as much as our bodies, but that it’s taken this long for such a study to appear in a reputable medical publication. We still have a long way to go before medical training includes a proper study of nutrition. Until then, Psychologies readers will have to rely on their own reading if they want to know which foods are good for health.

Enable referrer and click cookie to search for eefc48a8bf715c1b ad9bf81e74a9d264 [] 2.7.22