Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Panic: 'Why what we eat has led to rise in mental problems', says the Daily Telegraph, reporting a new study prepared by the food campaign group Sustain and the Mental Health Foundation (MHF). The report surveys research on the effect of various nutrients and foods on mental development and illness. The report suggests that industrialised farming and changing patterns of eating may be leading to the loss of vital nutrients and imbalances which can effect brain formation, concentration and memory. The suggestion is that rising levels of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia and Alzheimer's may all be related, in part, to diet.

Don't panic: Coverage of the Sustain/MHF report has been much more definitive about the conclusions drawn than the report itself. At the very start, the author notes that it is not a systematic review of the literature and that there is a distinct bias towards studies that show a link between diet and mental health. So, the author suggests the report should not be read as a definitive statement on the science, but as an awareness-building exercise. 'Advocacy research' might be nearer the mark.

Even some of the basic assumptions need to be called into question. It is far from clear that there has been a real increase in mental health problems over the last few years. In a society increasingly obsessed with health and the inability to find a wider meaning to life, many behaviours previously regarded as normal variations of personality are being redefined as mental illness. Moreover, if there has been any increase in mental health problems, those same navel-gazing trends must be a prime candidate as an explanation. Increasing levels of drinking, drug-use and the decline of traditional patterns of family and working life could all represent a stronger explanation than our failure to eat enough oily fish.

In the foreword, Professor Tim Lang of City University makes the analogy with heart disease and diet. The heart disease-diet link is well-established now, he suggests, and the mental health-diet link must surely follow. In reality, while our diets are allegedly getting worse, death rates from coronary heart disease for those under 75 have tumbled in the past 30 years. Far from confirming his case, the analogy only illustrates how 'common sense' explanations of ill-health need to be treated with caution.

Still, the provisional nature of the research hasn't stopped Sustain from packing the report's recommendations with their own particular hobby-horses. For example, 'All prison facilities should instigate sustainable food policies and practices so that all residents and staff are encouraged to choose culturally diverse and appropriate meals, snacks and drinks that promote their mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.' What have cultural diversity and sustainability got to do with whether we getting enough selenium or iodine in our food?

It is true that at a fundamental level, 'we are what we eat' - but we are much more than the sum of the nutrients that make up our bodies, and our minds are much more than the chemical make-up of our brains.


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