MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS: Behavior, nutrition

Jim Runnells
Special to the Herald Democrat
Herald Democrat

Historically, mental health professionals have significantly underestimated the importance of diet and nutrition as contributors to the treatment of emotional and behavioral problems and also for preserving and optimizing cognitive function.

A huge body of evidence now indicates that lifestyle choices such as smoking, diet, stress reduction, and exercise have a major influence on both mental and physical health. Dietary lifestyle changes are still under utilized despite this considerable evidence of their effectiveness in both clinical and normal populations.

Researchers looked at the association between dietary patterns and mental health in early adolescence by following 1,860 adolescents from birth to 14 years of age. Indicators of mental health were measured by using the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) and the Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ) to assess diet. The FFQ contained a list of 212 different foods as part of the assessment. Items that make up aggressive behaviors included lying, fighting, temper tantrums, stealing, etc. and are often termed as 'conduct problems'.

The foods were divided into two groups: 1) the Healthy Diet, characterized by leafy green vegetables, fresh fruit, seeds and nuts, etc. and 2) the Western Diet, characterized by refined grains, red meats, processed meats, dairy, fast foods, sweet pastries, candies, soda, etc. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the foods consumed from, primarily, the Western diet are associated with higher CBCL scores for Anxiety, Depression and delinquent and or aggressive behaviors.

In conclusion, this study, published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine, suggests that poorer behavior in early adolescence - even after adjusting for socio-economic and lifestyle factors - is associated primarily with a Western dietary pattern. That is a diet high in red meat, processed meats, takeaway foods, confectionary and refined foods. The study has important implications for public health policy-makers, given that diet is a “modifiable risk factor.”

Dietary changes, especially in our younger population, can offer significant therapeutic advantages for our children. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that, on average, the American population consumes 55% of their diet on processed and fast foods. This “attachment” to fast food, over natural foods and fresh produce, is an adverse contribution to emotional and behavioral problems in our children.

Therefore, it is particularly important for us as parents to help our children adopt a healthy diet of fresh fruit and vegetables and reduce the intake of processed foods in order to minimize unhealthy contributions to their emotional and behavioral problems.

Transitioning to a whole food plant-based lifestyle can be an effective and a low-cost benefit to our children - and ourselves.

Jim Runnels is a retired Licensed Professional Counselor and advocate of evidence-based education and supporter of the health benefits of a whole food plant-based, active lifestyle, to achieve optimal health. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.

Dietary changes, especially in younger population, can offer significant therapeutic advantages for our children.