Increased data connects food and cognitive behavior

By Jennifer E Chase
March 1st, 2010

“Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are.”

When epicurean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote that statement in 1826, he didn’t mean he could literally divine who you were based on what you cooked, but he did imply that what we consume bears on our well being. His inference became the de facto maxim for anyone believing good health requires good food. Today, research is making his “you are what you eat” mantra as much about eating’s effects on our mental health as on our bodies, linking the potential for altering our moods by altering our foods.

“I have found the connection between mind and nutrition to be critical,” says Michelle Hemingway, M.D., who for 20 years was involved with urgent and long-term care and chronic autoimmune diseases and in 2008 founded Integral Medicine, a practice in Lenox, Mass., committed to a body, mind, spirit and science-approach to medical treatment.

“There is no mystery that here in the states the rise in ADD and behavioral issues in children, the increased rates of mental illness in adults is connected to the Standard American Diet that most Americans use,” she says. “We are just hitting the tip of the iceberg in terms of how much nutrients such as phytochemicals and omega 3 fats affect health and specifically the mind-body connection.”

Vitamin Bs factor in stress, niacin in schizophrenia; folic acid develops brains in unborn fetuses; and omegas aid depression. Public interest and clinical research linking how we feel with what we eat goes beyond eater’s remorse and taps into what keeps us healthy. “Sometimes people need particular nutrients that can change their life,” says Hemingway. “Either they don’t process that nutrient well or have genetic reasons they can’t use it. When it is supplied, it makes a difference. We need to look at whole-diet approaches.”

A recent study published in the Nov. 2009 issue of the Archive of Internal Medicine, reports whether a diet filled with fat or seratonin-boosting carbs could play a larger role in someone’s positive mood.

In the study, 106 overweight and obese participants were assigned either a very low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet (LC) or a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet (LF), each combined with low exercise. Using scores from the Profile of Mood States, the Beck Depression Inventory and Spielberger State Anxiety Inventory and a general test of working memory and processing speed, the group consuming high carbs and little fat displayed a “favorable” effect on mood state. Both diets had similar effects on memory and the ability to think.

“The study confirms what a lot of people knew anecdotally,” says Nina T. Frusztajer, M.D., who co-authored “The Serotonin Power Diet” with Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., former director of the research program in Women’s Health at the MIT Clinical Research Center and founder of TRIAD, a Harvard Hospital weight loss center. “There’s a reason why carbs are comfort food.”

Despite the study’s pluses – Hemingway praised its length, noting that most dietary studies don’t last a year and its recognizing the connection between mental health and body function – it has a few negatives.

“What did people really eat?” she asks, noting that whole grains versus refined ones weren’t mentioned. It also left questionable how many fruits and vegetables participants were encouraged to eat. “Without the phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables, it is impossible to really know what effect the diet has.”

Generally, Hemingway – who sees patients in her Lenox office and provides phone consultations – agreed with the study’s findings. “Diets do affect mood because the brain is dependent on glucose for functioning,” she says.

This echoes the work outlined in “The Serotonin Power Diet.” Wurtman’s research has focused on the relationship between carbohydrates, brain serotonin and disturbances in emotional status and eating. Frusztajer is a Boston-based practicing physician who has researched the relationship between nutrient intake and stress. Theirs is less a diet book and more a lifestyle guide to lifelong eating for people who want to self-boost their seratonin. The book is also for patients who have gained weight from their antidepressant medication.

“People on antidepressants are completely neglected by the healthcare field,” says Frusztajer. “They have a weight gain side effect, which affects their demeanor. But it doesn’t have to. If people can boost their seratonin levels, they can boost their mood. It’s a win-win.”

“People hear all the time, ‘don’t eat when you’re stressed,’ but actually, it’s a great thing to do … if you eat the right thing,” says Frusztajer. According to Frusztajer, “the right thing” is a low-fat, low-protein carb like a half bagel or serving of pretzels – on an empty stomach.

With some 100 million people on a prescribed mood-altering drug, interest is growing for finding ways to improve quality of life naturally.

“How the brain functions, food, mood – we’re just scratching the surface,” says Alan H. Baldwin, M.S., who for 12 years was a wellness coach in Vermont and is now a wellness consultant for a Texas health insurance company. “Naturopaths have been on the front edges and have some decent case-study clinical research. We’re always looking for a magic pill; people have to find what individually works best for them.”

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