The Mental Health Foundation says scientific studies have clearly linked attention deficit disorder (ADD), depression, Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia to junk food and the absence of essential fats, vitamins and minerals in industrialized diets.
A further report, "Changing Diets, Changing Minds," published yesterday by Sustain, the organization that campaigns for better food, warns that the UK national health service bill for mental illness, at almost US$176 billion a year, will continue to rise unless the government focuses on diet and the brain in its food, farming, education and environment policies.
"Food can have an immediate and lasting effect on mental health and behavior because of the way it affects the structure and function of the brain," Sustain's report says. Its chairman, Tim Lang, said, "Mental health has been completely neglected by those working on food policy. If we don't address it and change the way we farm and fish, we may lose the means to prevent much diet-related ill health."
Both reports, which have been produced collaboratively, outline the growing scientific evidence linking poor diet to problems of behavior and mood. Rates of depression have been shown to be higher in countries with low intakes of fish, for example. Lack of folic acid, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and the amino acid tryptophan are thought to play an important role in the illness. Deficiencies of essential fats and antioxidant vitamins are also thought to be a contributory factor in schizophrenia.
A pioneering nutrition and mental health program, thought to be the only one of its kind in Britain, was carried out at Rotherham in the north of England. According to Caroline Stokes, its research nutritionist, the mental health patients she saw generally had the poorest diets she had ever come across. "They are eating lots of convenience foods, snacks, takeaways, chocolate bars, crisps. It's very common for clients to be drinking a liter or two of cola a day. They get lots of sugar but a lot of them are eating only one portion of fruit or vegetable a day, if that."
The therapy includes omega-3 fatty acids and multi-vitamins, with advice on cutting out junk food and replacing it with oily fish, leafy vegetables for folic acid, Brazil nuts for selenium and food providing tryptophan.
Some patients who resist treatment with drugs accept nutritional therapy and most have reported an improvement in mood and energy. Stokes said, "Within the first month there's been a significant reduction in depression. We've had letters from [the patients'] psychiatrists saying they can see a huge difference."
One sufferer who benefited from a dietary change was James McLean, who was at university when first diagnosed with bipolar disorder [manic depression]. After he had been sectioned repeatedly, his father read about the role of nutrition in mental health. The pair went privately to the Brain Bio Centre, in London, where McLean's nutrient levels were checked; he was allergic to gluten and yeast and was given supplements, including vitamin B and essential fatty acids.
"I'd been eating lots of intense carbohydrate foods. because they were cheap, and very little fruit or vegetables," McLean said. Now, he excludes wheat from his diet too. He added: "I have more energy and confidence, I sleep better, and I came off the anti-psychotic drugs, although I still take mood stabilizing ones."