Opinion: Some food for thought about nutritional psychiatry

Bill Brownstein: We’re becoming more and more aware of the impact our food choices have on depression.

Bill Brownstein, Montreal Gazette 4 minute read February 1, 2021

The ear hears what it wants to hear, but the gut knows what’s best.

A recent report noted that what we eat could go a long way toward lifting sagging spirits and allaying depression during this pandemic. To the gluttons among us, that might have led to certain tantalizing food fantasies.

Not so fast, gluttons. The thinking among the wizened in the food field is broccoli, not bacon cheeseburgers. And that what we eat could actually be eating us up. And that the wrong food groups could trigger depression, among myriad other illnesses.

An online survey conducted by the Institut national de santé publique (INSPQ) among 3,300 Quebecers indicated less consumption of fruits and vegetables and an increased intake of junk food — particularly among younger respondents in the latter instance — from Dec. 11 to 23, compared to the same period in 2019.

According to a piece in Psychology Today by Elizabeth Dixon, heavy-duty processed foods consumed in copious quantities “have the potential to negatively affect one’s mental health, placing individuals at an increased risk for anxiety and depression.”

So no surprise that gaining much momentum of late is the burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry, which refers to “the treatment and prevention of mental disorders through dietary modifications and nutrient-based supplementation.”

So bye-bye corn dogs. Hello kelp.

And so perhaps this is not the most opportune time to propose the cross-Canada La Poutine Week, which kicks off Monday with over 120 Montreal restaurants participating in the delivery of that gluey amalgam of fries, cheese curds and gravy, among other ingredients.

Dietician-nutritionist Kim Arrey. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

“Nutritional psychiatry is a fascinating game-changer,” says Montreal dietician-nutritionist Kim Arrey. “What makes sense on a really intuitive level is that when you look at how different neurochemicals are made in your brain, it may take different nutrients to do that. So if your diet is totally unbalanced, something else is going to be unbalanced. We’re becoming more and more aware, particularly now during this pandemic, of the impact our food choices have on depression.

“We are now looking more than ever at the chemistry of it, how particular nutrients can work with our mental health. We do know, for instance, that serotonin, which is produced in the gut, is a key hormone helping in stabilizing our levels of happiness. So if we’re not feeding our gut properly and our gut can’t produce serotonin, then that’s going to influence our mood.”

Arrey goes on to mention that the socialization factor also plays a vital role. Our positive mental states can be further enhanced by eating with friends and family, which is now quite problematic during the current lockdown.

Arrey is a strong advocate of the Mediterranean Diet, which is pretty much palatable to most, even the gluttonous, despite the fact that it preaches a low consumption of meat products. On the other hand, the diet is big on olive oil and moderate amounts of cheese, yogurt, high-fibre breads and, yes, wine, as well as, of course, generous servings of fish, legumes, fruits, veggies and unrefined cereals.

She also cites the Nordic Diet, which focuses more around locally produced food items, like canola oil, root vegetables and fatty fish, when staples of the Mediterranean Diet are hard to find in northern climes.

Other suggestions?

“There’s nothing like a comforting bowl of chicken soup, with all sorts of nice veggies, like cabbage, and spices. Also perfect for our weather now are nutritious veggie-filled stews and Coq au vin. Nuts and popcorn are always great for snacking.”

But Arrey is a compassionate soul.

“I have to say that sometimes a slice of pizza is good, preferably with anchovies, when you’re otherwise not worried about balance in your diet. It’s fun to order it in with your family on occasion. I get that,” she explains. “And let’s face it, how many people order out for fish anyway, other than sushi? I haven’t. Sadly, it’s never happened.”

On that note, Arrey has another confession to make: “I shock people by saying my favourite vegetable in the whole world is … French fries. Of course, I don’t have them often and I don’t have huge portions. But I’m only human.”



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