Good food for good thought

Amanda O'Brien
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It’s mental illness awareness week here in Canada (Oct. 6-12).

Mental illness can include many ailments, including, but not limited to, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, depression, bipolar and personality disorders.

The World Health Organization has famously acknowledged that “there is no health without mental health.”

Mental health is not simply the absence of a mental health condition, says the WHO. It is a “state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

According to a report published December last year by Dietitians of Canada, nutrition is thought to play a role in many ways when it comes to mental health. Such factors include societal shifts, modification of the typical diet, food insecurity, genetics, prenatal nutrition, long-term poor nutrition, cortisol depletion, energy and glucose, antioxidant effects, neurotransmitter effects and membrane function. All are thought to be nutritional contributors to whether or not a person develops a mental illness.

Of course, there are other factors that can displace one at a higher risk, but I bet many people didn’t know nutrition can actually play that large a role in mental health promotion and poor health prevention.

So, what specific foods and nutrients are powerful for optimal mental health? According to a 2007 report in the Psychological Bulletin by the American Psychological Association, nutrients commonly associated with mental health include good polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially omega-3 types; minerals such as zinc, magnesium, selenium, copper and iron; B vitamins such as folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12; and antioxidant vitamins such as C and E.

The good news is that most of these nutrients are available in healthy diets that include dark-green, leafy and orange-coloured vegetables and whole grains, so be sure to consume these foods daily. Dark leafy greens can include arugula, broccoli, chard, dandelion greens, gai lan, kale, collards, mustard greens, and salad greens including romaine lettuce, spinach or mesclun mix.

Orange coloured vegetables and fruits like carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkin, yams, apricots, cantaloupes, mangoes, nectarines and papaya are nutrient plentiful. Whole-grain options could include wheat, barley, rye, oats, buckwheat, coloured and wild rice, corn, quinoa and millet. Just be sure to reference the ingredient list, and look for the word “whole” before the type of grain.

Not surprisingly, observational studies suggest that diets comprising excess fat (particularly saturated and trans fats) and calories, as well as obesity, are associated with an increased risk of mental health conditions. So keep saturated fat like hydrogenated fat, animal fat, processed meats, high fat cheese and desserts to a minimum. Also, trans fat-laden foods such as hard margarine or shortening, fast foods, baked goods and their packaged mix counterparts, chips and crackers.

In 2010 and 2011, several studies conducted by Dr. Felice Jacka and colleagues from Deakin University and the University of Melbourne in Australia examined diet and mental health outcomes in women across a wide range of ages.

Similar to other recent research, the findings showed that women who regularly consumed a diet of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and high-quality meat and fish cut their risk for anxiety disorders and major and chronic depression by more than 30 per cent. In comparison, people studies who ate a “Western” diet, i.e. high in refined or processed foods and saturated fats, had a 50 per cent increased chance for depression.

All the research is still early, but promising, as similar studies have been performed in different populations with related results.

Now that you’re aware that it’s mental illness awareness week, hopefully you are now also aware of some of the dietary patterns which are beneficial for good mental health and mental illness prevention.

Amanda Burton is a registered dietitian in St. John’s. Contact her through the


Organizations: World Health Organization, American Psychological Association, Deakin University University of Melbourne

Geographic location: Canada, Australia

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