Emotional, non-rational, even explosive remarks in public discourse have escalated in recent years. Politicians endure insults during legislative discussions; scientists receive emails and tweets containing verbal abuse and threats.
What’s going on? This escalation in angry rhetoric is sometimes attributed to social media. But are there other influences altering communication styles?
As researchers in the field of nutrition and mental health, and authors of The Better Brain, we recognize that many in our society experience brain hunger, impairing their cognitive function and emotion regulation.
Obviously, we are not deficient in macronutrients: North Americans tend to get sufficient protein, fats (though usually not the best fats), and carbohydrates (usually not the good complex carbs). But we are being cheated of micronutrients (minerals and vitamins), particularly in those whose food choices are dominated by ultra-processed products.
Ultra-processed products include things like soft drinks, packaged snacks, sweetened breakfast cereal, and chicken nuggets. They generally contain only trivial amounts of a few micronutrients unless they are fortified, but even then, only a few at higher amounts.
Three published analyses from the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey and the 2018 U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey revealed these sobering statistics: in Canada, in 2004, 48 percent of the caloric intake across all ages came from ultra-processed products; in the United States 67 percent of what children aged two to 19 years consumed and 57 percent of what adults consumed in 2018 were ultra-processed products.
Most of us are aware that dietary intake is a huge issue in physical health because diet quality is associated with chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The public is less aware of the impact of nutrition on brain health.
Micronutrients and mental health symptoms
Given that our society’s food choices have moved so strongly toward ultra-processed products, we need to learn about the substantial scientific evidence proving that micronutrient intake influences mental health symptoms, especially irritability, explosive rage, and unstable mood.
The scientific evidence base for this statement is now vast, though it is so rarely mentioned in the media that few in the public are familiar with it.
A dozen studies from countries like Canada, Spain, Japan and Australia have shown that people who eat a healthy, whole foods diet have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than people who eat a poor diet (mostly ultra-processed products).
Correlational studies cannot prove that nutritional choices are the cause of mental health problems: for that we turn to some compelling prospective longitudinal studies in which people with no apparent mental health problems enter the study, are evaluated for their health and dietary patterns, and are then followed over time. Some of the results have been astonishing.
In a study of about 89,000 people in Japan with 10-15 years of follow-up, the suicide rate in those consuming a whole foods diet was half that of those eating less healthy diets, highlighting an important new direction not yet covered in current suicide prevention programs.
Here in Canada, similarly powerful findings show how children’s dietary patterns, as well as following other health guidelines on exercise and screen time, predicted which children aged 10 to 11 years …….