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  • Writer's pictureCoach Kat

Do You Feel What You Eat?:Effects of Diet on Mental Health

Updated: May 3, 2023

By Coach Kat, May 20, 2020, copyright Bronwyn Katdaré 2020

“The Angry Vegan.” “The Calm Gardener.” “The Fat and Happy Husband.” Is there anything to back up these stereotypes? Is there a link between diet and mental health?

May is Mental Health Awareness Month so let’s take a look.

Nearly 8% of Americans over the age of 12 experience some degree of depression. In the over-18 population, 7.1% of the population (17.3 million people) are depressed (accurate as of 2017). In total, in any given year, as many as 19 million Americans struggle with depression. Others suffer from anxiety, stress, emotional instability, and other diagnosable mental disorders – many in combination. The magnitude of our mood has far-reaching implications, from our ability to focus at work to maintaining healthy relationships to prison recidivism rates.

As of December 2019, the all-ages total of Americans taking some form of psychiatric drug was 78, 195, 307. That’s right folks, over 78 million Americans on some form of psychiatric drug, with many more remaining unmedicated and/or undiagnosed. The U.S. population is 326.7 million.

If there was only a way to improve mental health without medication….

If there was only a way to understand what factors influence mental health….

Oh, wait! There is!

Food choices and diet should be the first line of defense against mental illness. Here is why: Food is information. Food tells the body what to do, how to perform, and how to think. This can be great news for those with mental health issues.

“The evidence suggests that people who are depressed have raised inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein, and inflammatory illnesses are associated with greater rates of major depression,” says Michael Greger, MD, FACLM, author of How Not to Die. “This is the case for a variety of inflammatory conditions, including relatively benign inflammatory conditions, such as asthma and allergies. And that’s important, suggesting the mood symptoms are not simply feeling bad about having a terrible disease - but may be directly tied to the inflammation.”

Inflammation is the body’s immune response to bacteria, viruses, toxins, and injuries. Inflammation is closely linked to what we eat and it’s also linked to depression. (Depression is not the only mental health issue but it is the most widely studied). For example, a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry tested levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, in more than 70,000 Danish adults. Researchers found that the higher the blood levels of CRP, the more likely someone was to use antidepressants or be hospitalized for depression.

The most pro-inflammatory food components are saturated fat and trans fat. Saturated fat increases the viscosity (stickiness) of blood. That stickiness of the blood “reduces the oxygenation of tissues, reduces overall blood flow, and makes you just feel tired and rotten all the time,” as explained by Dr. Neal Barnard, MD, FACC, President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and author of Power Foods for the Brain.

Omnivores, those who eat both plants and animals or animal-derived products, may be depressed due to their diets, specifically amount of inflammation in their brains. Research has linked depression to inflammation in the brain produced by arachidonic acid (AA) and chemical imbalances of neurotransmitters. Arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid found only in animals, serves as a precursor to inflammatory chemicals in our bodies. Top inflammatory foods are animals and animal products, especially chicken and eggs, followed by beef, pork, fish, and processed foods. By eating foods high in arachidonic acid, such as chicken, eggs, and other animal products, a cascade of chemical reactions is set off in the body. These reactions lead to an increase in inflammatory mediators (from AA) circulating in the bloodstream. The result is general inflammation, or an overreactive immune response. When inflammation reaches the brain, subsequent feelings of anxiety, stress, hopelessness, and depression arise.

Vegans are less depressed, negative, and anxious than omnivores, possibly due to the lack of AA from these products. In the famous GEICO Study, where over 200 GEICO employees were offered and studied while on a Whole Food Plant-Based Vegan diet, the results concluded that when AA acid is removed via animal products and WFPB diet is added in, levels of AA drop to 0 within 2 weeks. Participants also reported better digestion, improved sleep, increased energy, better physical functioning, better mental health, better vitality, and better work productivity.

Both the protective effects of fruits and vegetables and the harmful effects of animal foods play a role when it comes to diet and mood. Plant foods are high in antioxidants and phytochemicals, which generally help to repair damage and decrease inflammation in brain cells. Long-term vegans have better levels of antioxidants than omnivores. More antioxidants = better mood.

In addition, plant foods can help restore balance to neurotransmitters. Many people suffering from depression have elevated levels of an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO). This enzyme breaks down serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine - neurotransmitters which help regulate mood. High MAO levels lead to low levels of these specific neurotransmitters, causing depression. The phytochemical quercetin, found only in plant foods, acts as an MAO inhibitor. Working much like a natural antidepressant, quercetin can increase the amount of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain. Foods with high levels of quercetin include apples, kale, berries, grapes, onion, and green tea. (Sidebar: quercetin is also a natural non-drowsy anti-histamine).

The brain uses the amino acid tryptophan to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter largely responsible for feelings of happiness and well-being. Plant-based sources of tryptophan include leafy greens, sunflower seeds, watercress, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, mushrooms, broccoli, and peas. While meats such as turkey also contain the amino acid, the body can have a difficult time converting it to serotonin. Meals rich in carbohydrates promote an increase in insulin production, allowing muscle cells to absorb competing amino acids. This makes it easier for tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier, increasing serotonin levels in the brain. This may explain the association between depression and carbohydrate cravings. A diet high in protein and animal foods can limit serotonin production. A healthy approach for ideal levels of tryptophan in the brain is to focus on plant proteins along with generous amounts of complex carbohydrates, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. With this pattern in place, there is sufficient serotonin produced to maintain feelings of well-being.

The brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel. Diets high in refined sugars, for example, are harmful to the brain. In addition to worsening your body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function, even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders such as depression.

Brain health also depends on gut health. Bacteria, fungi, and viruses make up a system of microbes that live in our intestines and on our skin and constitute over 2/3 of our immune system. “Good” gut bacteria keep us healthy and functioning optimally. “Bad” gut bacteria create inflammation, leaky gut in which bacteria leaks from the intestines into the blood and recirculates through every one of our organs, including the brain. What happens in the gut happens in the brain because they are connected via the Vagus Nerve. Gut inflammation can cause depression, brain ailments, and nutrient deficiencies, all of which can lead to violence and aggression. This is especially true when there is an imbalance between zinc and copper. The best foods to feed the good gut bugs are prebiotics. They include cruciferous vegetables, beans, bananas, artichokes, blueberries, polenta, and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, and kombucha. The worst offenders are meat and dairy.

A Harvard University study found that participants eating a diet of meat and dairy (especially cheese) not only altered gut microbes to produce more bad bacteria and kill off the good bacteria but also altered behavior. When subjects were switched to a WFPB diet, their good gut bacteria reproduced and their moods elevated.

Dr. Drew Ramsey, MD, Nutritional Psychiatrist and author of Fifty Shades of Kale, notes that certain nutrients play a vital role in brain health, especially Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin D, all B vitamins, zinc, iron, and magnesium. Ways to incorporate each of these into your diet include:

~Omega-3: walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, ground flax seed.

~Get a 1, 2 punch from the combination of zinc, iron, and magnesium in legumes, ancient grains, soybeans, nuts, and leafy greens.

~B vitamins are abundant in nuts, seeds, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, oranges, sweet potatoes, kale, fennel, squash, tomatoes, avocadoes, fortified coconut and almond milk, sprouted grain breads, beans, fortified nutritional yeast, figs, and dates.

~To get Vitamin D, shrug off your winter clothes and expose your skin to sunlight. You can also take Vitamin D3 supplements.

Still not convinced? In the 1990’s, prisons began to experiment with vegan diets among the inmate population. The most famous project took place at the 500-inmate private prison, Victor Valley Medium Community Correctional Facility in Adelanto, California. In 1997, when this project was started, the State of California had a recidivism rate of 95% (percentage of former prisoners who are rearrested). The Victor Valley facility had a recidivism rate of less than 2%. What was the key factor behind this success? A vegan diet. Once operational, this facility saw remarkable results for seven years. Upon arrival, new inmates attended an orientation where they received two choices on living guidelines: they could live on the side of the prison which operated using the standard California Department of Corrections (CDC) guidelines and food menus; or, they could live on the side of the prison that operated under the “NEWSTART” program which included a vegan diet, bible studies, job training, and anger management. Victor Valley nutrition services coordinator Julianne Aranda explained that “what we eat not only affects us physically, but it affects our mental attitude, our aggressiveness, and our ability to make good decisions”. On average, 85% of the inmates chose the NEWSTART side while only 15% chose the CDC program.

The remarkable behavioral changes could even be seen in the prison yard where, according to prison officials, nobody “owned” or controlled the yard. Typical lines drawn between blacks, whites, Hispanics, gang members and other groups were non-existent. The CDC side of the prison had the same racial divisions experienced at any other prison. In testimonials, inmates assert that the surprisingly good-tasting food led them to feel better, have greater energy, increased stamina, and reduced problems with acne.

In program after program, the effectiveness of a vegan diet in prison rehabilitation has been scientifically validated. Psychiatrists are finding that the nutrition afforded by a WFPB vegan diet improves inmate health and decreases the amount of anti-social behaviors including violence. One study showed that nutritional supplements alone were more powerful in reducing repeat offenses by criminals on probation (38%) than counseling.

Although no one is suggesting that poor diet alone can account for complex social problems, there is compelling evidence that there is a direct link between diet and antisocial behavior - both that bad diet causes bad behavior and that good diet prevents it.

Professor of Criminology and Sociology at California State University, Stephen Shoenthaler, has been studying the effects of vitamins on inmates in California for the last 20 years. In a large study of prison diets in California, New York, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Florida, Shoenthaler found that prisoner’s eating habits could be used to predict future violent behavior. Normally, past violent behavior is considered the best prediction of future violence but professor Shoenthaler found that a poor diet is an even better predictor of violent behavior.

I’m not claiming that malnutrition is the only cause of crime, nor is it the only solution, but if better nutrition in general, and a vegan diet in particular, can bring about a substantial reduction in violent crime, that would be something to consider for future policy implications. For isn’t a good diet, made up of good food, a better and a less expensive solution than just hiring more police and building more prisons? Or adding to already astronomical healthcare costs worldwide?

Rather than resorting to medications, following a plant-based diet, rich in antioxidants and polyphenols from fruits and vegetables, can serve as an inexpensive, natural, and noninvasive therapeutic means to support mental health. Knowing that you can take control over your physical and mental health simply by changing what you eat, wouldn’t you want to do it? If not, why not?

(Bronwyn Katdaré earned a M.A. in Criminology, B.A. in Sociology/Criminal Justice, Certificate in Forensic Science and Law, and Certificate in Authentic Leadership. She is a certified Nutrition, Lifestyle, and Functional Medicine Health Coach who helps women who gave away their POWER and struggle in their lives due to DISCONNECTION - disconnection from their body, mind, spirit, and intuition. She helps these women regain FREEDOM: freedom from what weighs on them physically, mentally, and spiritually; freedom from feelings of being stuck; freedom from the fear of genetic chronic disease or enduring another episode of chronic disease.)

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