The Optimal Diet for Mental Health Improvement
What if what you eat affects your brain first, and your stomach second?
In a recent article on his revolutionary Carb Syndrome Project, researcher Dr. Bill Wilson argues that a bad diet doesn’t just affect your physical health, it affects brain health. Not only that, the brain takes the first hit.
He’s dubbed it CARB syndrome: Carbohydrate Associated Reversible Brain disorder.
If sugary processed foods have such a profound effect on our physical health (e.g. weight gain, diabetes, cancer), then shouldn’t we also examine their effects on our mental health as well?
Let’s get to the bottom of the best mental health diet.
“For years the experts completely ignored the role that diet plays when it comes to brain function and diseases. They were stuck with a flat world model long after people were sailing their ships around the globe. Even though they have yet to understand the CARB syndrome concept, at least they have now acknowledged that food does play a key role in brain disorders.”
Dr. Wilson and a growing group of scientists in a new branch of science called “nutritional psychiatry” are finding evidence linking bad nutrition to ADHD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and even autism.
As the good doctor likes to say: “If you eat bad food you are frying your brain.”
Sounds a little alarmist, but he’s got a lot of good points. Here are our thoughts on his arguments and other prominent voices that are contributing to the discussion:
Our “Western” diet has three major things wrong
He names three main dietary elements that lead to CARB syndrome:
- fructose (from added sugars)
- high glycemic carbohydrates (processed grains)
- omega 6 fatty acids (found in “heart healthy” vegetable oils)
And we couldn’t agree more. Sugar is disrupting our hormones and screwing up our moods.
Refined carbs are the villain, not saturated fat. And we’re eating far too many omega 6s, and not enough omega 3s.
The calorie myth needs to die
We’ve been preaching this for a while: it’s the source of the calories that really matters.
Eating 1000 calories of cake, then running two hours on the treadmill to burn them back off will not make you healthy – and it’s wreaking major havoc on your state of mind. But don’t despair!
As Jonathan Bailor says, you can actually eat more food to get fitter and mentally healthier. It’s just about choosing the right foods.
Read more on the calorie myth in our full breakdown here.
Your gut is your “second brain”
The mind/body connection is a big deal, guys.
Sugar and additives make us addicted, anxious, and erratic. And bacteria in the gut have the power to control mood swings and brain fog. Food has powerful effects on how we feel.
And, as Dr. Wilson argues, changing how we eat is the key to resolving more aggressive mental health issues such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, autism, and dementia.
David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain, poses a pretty good question:
With every bite of food, you can invite disease or fight it. Which do you choose?
— David Perlmutter, MD (@DavidPerlmutter) October 27, 2015
There’s a reason we’re popping more pills
Dr. Wilson’s CARB syndrome is supported by research examining rates of depression and intake of sugary, processed foods.
In this study, researchers found “nutrition can play a key role in the onset as well as severity and duration of depression.”
It’s also interesting to note the meteoric rise of pharmaceuticals and antidepressants in the last few decades, along with the rise of processed junk foods. Check out this graph from the CDC:
Cut the Cravings
The cardinal symptom of CARB syndrome is craving sweet and starchy food.
When treating patients with CARB syndrome, he always deals with their cravings. If these cravings are not addressed the patient will absolutely not get better.
“When you develop CARB syndrome your hunger drives become divorced from your bodies’ nutritional needs. You become hungry shortly after eating and you don’t feel full after eating a reasonable amount of food. These intrusive thoughts about food and eating eventually kidnap your brain, leaving you little time to think about more pressing matters.” –Dr. Wilson
How to put “nutritional psychiatry” to work in your own life:
You don’t have to be at the mercy of mood swings and energy crashes. Stabilize your moods, increase your energy, and brighten your positivity simply by adjusting what you eat.
Here are some small changes that will promote a good mental health diet:
- Eat less sugar.
- Cut out processed meats and refined carbs.
- Pay attention to the source of your meat: this reduces your intake of food-borne antibiotics and toxins .
- Consume fewer pesticides by eating organic when you can. Check out our post on GMOs.
- Eat more fermented foods to increase your healthy gut bacteria.
- Get better sleep. Here’s how to calibrate your sleep cycles.