As you are all well aware, our mission at Food for the Brain is to raise awareness about the importance of nutrition for mental health. Our monthly articles are normally geared at specific conditions, nutrients and topics under the umbrella subject of nutrition and mental health. However, this month we’d like to draw attention to the challenges we all face in ensuring we can adequately nourish our bodies and brains and the importance of us all thinking a little more about what we ‘fuel’ ourselves with. Modern food manufacturing and farming techniques are making it harder to get the nutrients we need from our food and current dietary guidelines can confuse our understanding of what we actually need to be eating. As a population that is increasingly suffering with poor mental health, many of us may need more nutritional support than we’re getting.1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and it isn’t just an issue in this country; mental health problems constitute the largest single source of world economic burden and it is estimated that the global cost is £1.6 trillion greater than cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and heart disease on their own. In the UK, the NHS prescribed a record number of antidepressants in 2016, approximately 64.7 million, which is 108% increase from the 31 million that were dispensed in 2006. Despite the upward trend in prescribing medication for poor mental health, numbers of people suffering with anxiety and depression are continuing to increase. These statistics may also be showing how more people are accessing treatment such as antidepressants and it is clear that medication can play an important role in supporting people who are vulnerable. However, there is a growing body of research that is showing how nutrition can be a key modifiable risk factor in mental health. Currently there are big gaps in investment for research in prevention, in which nutrition would play a significant role. The majority of today’s research is focused on examining the underlying causes and treatment of mental health, however in March 2015 the independent Mental Health Taskforce brought together health and care leaders, people who use services and experts in the field to create a national strategy report to make prevention a priority for mental health titled the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health.Governments around the world have defined what are known as ‘Dietary Reference Values or Intakes’, which include figures known as either the RDA’s (Recommended Daily Allowances), for example in the US, or NRVs (Nutrient Reference Values) in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, that state the average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97-98%) healthy people. Many countries have also created labelling systems for packaged foods; in the UK for example we have a ‘Traffic Light System’ that gives shoppers a quick and clear reference of the nutritional value of foods. This was put in place in 2007 to help guide people in making more healthful choices to prevent the rising levels of obesity. However, whilst these guidelines have been useful to support people in understanding how processed foods can be extremely high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats, they do not emphasise the importance of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. As an example, here are two traffic light representations of two different products found in a supermarket. Which one would you choose based on the colours shown?
The one with all green, right? However, despite being given ‘the green light’ for having a coke as a seemingly healthier choice, the drink has almost no nutritional value, whilst the mixed bag of nuts and raisins is packed full of micronutrients such as copper, manganese, vitamin E, B vitamins, fibre, antioxidants like resveratrol and monounsaturated fatty acids that help increase HDL, our ‘good cholesterol’.So why should we focus more on the micronutrient value of our foods rather than pay attention to the macronutrient (carbohydrates and fats) content that the traffic light system represents? Quite simply, micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, are what help our body create essential things for our health such as enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and many other chemical processes that the body goes through to keep the body and brain healthy. For example, neurotransmitters such as serotonin depend on copper, iron and B6 to be produced and released in the brain and GABA, a neurotransmitter that helps to reduce anxiety, needs folate, B6, vitamin C and magnesium for its production. The brain is a very metabolically active organ; despite it only being 7% of the body’s weight, it can take up to 20% of the body’s metabolic needs, meaning that it is very energy hungry. This is why it is important to nourish the brain with foods that are rich in micronutrients that will provide the body with the building blocks it needs to produce neurotransmitters and keep us healthy. In addition, it is important to note that many people aren’t aware that NRV’s are given to help prevent serious illnesses like scurvy (caused by vitamin C deficiency) and rickets (caused by vitamin D deficiency), and are not necessarily representative of what you need for optimal health.It’s safe to say that the food we have access to in today’s supermarkets is significantly different to 50 years ago, with many of our food choices being driven by profit-driven food manufacturers and marketers encouraging convenience, for example, over nutrition. It wasn’t long ago that we were getting the majority of our food from natural sources such as fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, wholemeal grains and meat/fish, whereas nowadays the majority of the aisles in supermarkets are taken up with processed and pre-packaged foods. There are also serious concerns today that even our fruits and vegetables are becoming less nutrient rich, due to both a ‘dilution effect’ with modern crops being chosen for their carbohydrate yield without the proportional increases in micronutrient content. Scientists are warning how the impact of intensive farming that encourages the heavy use of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, are having on the nutritional value of our food. In 2014, researchers at the University of Sheffield, highlighted their concerns over the lack of biodiversity and nutrient depletion in the UK’s soils, and warned that urgent action needed to be taken to reverse this depletion or else we will be facing an agricultural crisis. A landmark study, published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2004, analysed nutrient content data in 43 different vegetables and fruits in 1950 to 1999. The study revealed how there has been markable declines in the protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C value in these foods over the past half century.Could the change in our dietary choices, which have been influenced by processed food markets, along with nutrient depletion in our fresh fruits and vegetables be related to the rise in in mental health problems? There are a multitude of influences in the pathology of poor mental health, however, knowing how certain nutrients play an essential role in maintaining our brain chemistry is important to take into consideration and reminds us that we need to pay more attention to the micronutrient content of food. By choosing food that is more likely to be rich in vitamins and minerals, we make sure that we are nourishing ourselves more, providing healthier amounts of these key building blocks and helping to prevent the development of poor mental health, as well as physical health.
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