LONDON: Changes in diet over the past 50 years appear to be an
important factor behind a significant rise in mental ill health in
the UK, say two reports published recently.
The Mental Health Foundation says scientific studies have clearly
linked attention deficit disorder, 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, was also
published recently by Sustain, the organization that campaigns for
better food. It warns that the UK national health service bill for
mental illness will continue to rise unless the government focuses
on diet and the brain in its food, farming, education and
"Food can have an immediate and lasting effect on mental health
and behaviour 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
behaviour 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 programme, 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 litre 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
The therapy includes omega-3 fatty acids and multivitamins, with
advice on cutting out junk food and replacing it with oily fish,
leafy vegetables for folic acid, Brazil nuts for selenium, and food
Some patients who resist treatment with drugs accept nutritional
therapy and most have reported an improvement in mood and energy.
Ms 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 Mr 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," Mr 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
Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health
Foundation, acknowledged that mental illness results from a complex
interplay of biological, social, psychological and environmental
factors, but thought diet should be an everyday component of mental
"We need mentally healthy school meals, and mentally healthy
hospital foods," he said.