By Nina Radcliff, MD
“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.” — Ann Wigmore.
The link between food and our physical health is well known. What we put into our mouths can either help protect us from, or increase our risk for, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and stroke — the number one, two, and three killers in America. But did you know that what we eat and drink can affect our mental health? Studies have proven that a healthy diet can help decrease our risk for depression as well as become an important part of a holistic approach to treat it. In our desire to be healthy, both physically and mentally, let’s revisit the saying “we are what we eat.” And let’s opt for healthy!
Back to basics
Studies have shown that people who enjoy diets rich in fruit, veggies, beans, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and lean meats (aka the Mediterranean diet) have lower rates of depression. There are a number of reasons for this. The body requires nutrients, or building blocks, to manufacture many of the “happy” chemicals in our brain; and these foods are nutrient powerhouses. In fact, the term “junk food” implies that the food item has minimal nutritional value. Filling our tummies up with nutrient-poor foods, or empty calories, often prevents us from consuming nutrient-rich foods and can cause a nutrient-deficit.
Eating healthy can also decrease our risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. These illnesses have been linked to higher rates of depression.
Our body’s immune system responds to foreign invaders to keep us safe. However, there are triggers that can cause our immune system to run amok and result in inflammation, an abnormal state. Studies have shown that inflammation not only can disrupt circuitry and the transmission of signals within our brain, it can also kill brain cells, leading to depression. The “3 P’s” — Processed, Packaged, and Prepared foods — are rich in harmful oils, sugar, artificial sweeteners, and additives (colors, flavor enhancers, preservatives) that can trigger inflammation. Consuming these items every now and then is unlikely to
cause harm; but because they are cheap, fast, and convenient, consumer research shows it has become easier and easier to reach for them.
Our bodies produce a waste product called free radicals that can contribute to aging and a number of disease states including cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s dementia, arthritis, and diabetes.
Fortunately, antioxidants can seize and disarm these harmful molecules. Beta-carotene (broccoli, carrots, peaches), vitamin C
(blueberries, oranges, tomatoes), and vitamin E (nuts and spinach) are some well-known antioxidants. Let’s incorporate them into snacks and meals.
Consuming carbohydrates can boost an important “feel good” chemical called serotonin. Unfortunately, it can also expand our waistlines and pack on the pounds. A good balance is to choose complex carbs (whole grains) and healthy carbs (fruit, veggies, legumes) over simple carbs (cakes and cookies).
Can we eat our way out of depression? No; a new, healthy diet cannot replace other treatments. Additionally, a healthy diet does not provide a bulletproof vest when it comes to preventing depression or other illnesses. However, eating healthy
should be incorporated into a holistic treatment plan against depression which includes exercise, improved sleep, counseling,
decreasing and dealing with stressors, yearly physicals and, if appropriate, medications.
Similar to the age-old question of what came first, the chicken or the egg, the same can be asked about depression and alcohol. People who drink heavily and regularly increase their risk for depression. This may be because alcohol is a depressant, increases inflammation, decreases “happy” chemicals in the brain, or can cause chronic illnesses. Conversely, those who suffer from depression are twice as likely to drink away their sorrows and develop a drinking problem.
Dietary changes cannot cure or completely prevent depression. But because we are what we eat, healthy food choices can help keep us in our best physical and mental health. Every time we put something in our mouth is an opportunity to nourish our body. Food is fuel. And just as we would not expect our cars to run smoothly or efficiently if we were to pump low quality fuel into it, we must apply the same reasoning to our bodies. I want to encourage you to think about what you are consuming and make good choices with what fuels you.
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Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.
By Nina Radcliff, MD