The role of nutrition and mental health in an increasingly remedial society
It is astonishing how many people think a junk food diet is cheaper than a healthy one and therefore, at a time when money is increasingly tight, believe such fare is an acceptable compromise. The physical consequences of habitually consuming processed convenience foods are now well established , but the latest research examining the effect of junk diets on brain function (see below) is equally worrying.
Until recently, we could always rely on the good old NHS to cure our ills and look after us in our dotage. In these times of austerity, however, the NHS is as cash-strapped as the rest of us. There is already much debate about restricting treatment of ‘avoidable’ diseases (such as lung cancer in smokers, and the morbidly obese), and the truly chilling tales of aged patients being placed on a ‘care pathway’ by withdrawal of fluids. This ‘care pathway’ releases a precious bed to the apparently more deserving, by requiring the previous occupant to first die of thirst .
More sensibly, the bean counters at the NHS have advised GPs to reduce the amount of sleeping pills and tranquillisers that are still routinely prescribed to millions despite their high risk of addiction and the prolonged withdrawal symptoms experienced when coming off them . Antidepressants, too, have recently come in for a drubbing, and have been found to be largely ineffective except in the most severely depressed patients .
“Pill for an ill” society
One has to ask the question then, why these drugs with all their side-effects and lack of efficacy are prescribed at all? I suspect there are diverse reasons, including misperceptions about their safety as well as increased availability, and of course the “pill for an ill” society we seem to have become. We ought by now to be a little bit more discerning – an influential review recently concluded that clinical drug trials sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry are subject to bias and tend to produce more favourable results . This might explain perhaps, why our docs are so ‘trigger-happy’ with their prescription pads.
Depression and anxiety are not conditions caused by a lack of Prozac or Valium, but are increasingly associated with our modern diet and environment. A range of studies suggest that those with better quality diets are less likely to be depressed. A 2009 study of 3,500 office staff found that a high intake of processed foods is a risk factor for depression in middle age, whereas a whole food diet (vegetables, fruit, fish) is protective . Population studies confirm that in populations with low intakes of fish, there is an increased risk of depression . A higher intake of processed and unhealthy foods is also associated with increased anxiety  and recent research from the British Journal of Health Psychology suggests that eating more fruit and vegetables makes young people calmer, happier and more energetic in their daily lives . Rocket science it ain’t.
Dietary advice, sadly, is not what doctors are currently ordering, so our attitudes to health need to change right now. The comforting illusion that the State will pick up the tab for our bad health choices is gone for good, and we are back to the cold reality that our own health is our own responsibility. And the place to start is with the food we eat. It was ever thus, of course, but we did not know, or else had forgotten it.
Impact of the “nutritional recession”
The problem is that the current “nutritional recession” due to rising living costs, shrinking incomes and public spending cuts is having an impact on the dietary choices people make when shopping for food . I met a young man working at ASDA recently who gave me an interesting idea. I was exchanging an item at Customer Services and we started chatting. When I mentioned what I did for a living, he said he would very much like to change his eating habits, but was unable to afford to eat a healthy diet on his meagre salary.
This shocked me, so I decided to find out if what he had said was actually true, and devised a 7-day menu plan for healthy eating on a budget, with food bought primarily from ASDA. I put together a simple menu plan and corresponding recipes, a shopping list with prices and also included a top ten list of budgeting tactics. I discovered that it is indeed still possible, with careful planning, to feed a family on healthy food for less than £20 per person/week (for a free e-book on this experiment please visit http://thehealthbank.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/healthy-eating-on-a-budget.pdf
It must be said, however, that a regular healthy diet can only offer you the ‘survival basics’. You will still get the ‘flu, you may still break a bone or two, may suffer from depression and sadly you may die from cancer… but you are giving yourself and your body the best possible survival odds by shedding all the many handicaps that a poor diet imposes on you. You are taking responsibility for your health and you can almost certainly afford it. Armed with this knowledge, most of us have no excuses.
Individual nutritional interventions
Beyond your regular diet, individual nutritional interventions also have a clear remedial role. In particular where mood and anxiety disorders are present, the nutritional therapy route offers clear advantages as a first-step intervention (cost, safety and efficacy) before conventional drug-based treatments are considered. Please note that I am referring to mild, not severe mental health problems here, and would not be so naïve as to suggest that the provision of nutritional therapy to patients is curative. Many patients, for instance, are unable or not well enough to buy, cook or eat healthy food. Some may require specific nutritional interventions, for example digestive or blood sugar support. Others may have hormonal imbalances, higher requirements for certain nutrients or intolerances to certain foods and chemicals. Treatment, given the incalculable variety of genetic and environmental differences, has to be based on the needs of the individual.
The detective work required by the Nutritional Therapist to work out an individual nutritional plan is time-consuming and labour-intensive. It can also be a pretty thankless task as many clients may not follow recommendations, particularly if suffering from mood and anxiety disorders. Yet, it still is the fundamental principle for covering all bases first before we resort to the ‘chemical cosh’ route. I shall not be sad to see the ‘pill for an ill’ evolve into a ‘drug for a mug’ society.
Article first published in Aromatherapy Times, Journal of the International Federation of Aromatherapists, Spring 2013 issue Vol.1 No.96
Martina Watts MSc Nut Med is a BANT and CNHC registered Nutritional Therapist. Martina’s new book “49 Ways to Eat Yourself Well. Nutritional science one bite at a time” (Step Beach Press Ltd) is published in May 2013. For more information please visit www.thehealthbank.co.uk.
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