Junk Food and the Brain: How Modern Diets Deprived of Micronutrients Can Contribute to Anger Rhetoric


Ultra-processed foods high in sugar, fat, and empty carbohydrates are bad for the mind as well as the body. Lack of micronutrients affects brain function and influences mood and mental health symptoms.

Emotional, irrational, even explosive remarks in public discourse have intensified in recent years. Politicians suffer insults during legislative discussions; scientists receive emails and tweets containing name-calling and threats.

What is going on? This escalation of angry rhetoric is sometimes attributed to social media. But are there other influences that change styles of communication?

As researchers in the field of nutrition and mental health and authors of The best brain, we recognize that many members of our society suffer from brain hunger, which interferes with their cognitive function and the regulation of emotions.

Ultra-processed products

Obviously, there’s no shortage of macronutrients: North Americans tend to get enough protein, fat (although not usually the best fats), and carbohydrates (usually not the good complex carbohydrates). But we are robbed of micronutrients (minerals and vitamins), especially in those whose food choices are dominated by ultra-processed products.

Ultra-processed products include soft drinks, packaged snacks, sugary breakfast cereals, and chicken nuggets. They usually only contain insignificant amounts of a few micronutrients unless they are fortified, but even then only a few in higher amounts.

Three published analyzes of the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey and the 2018 U.S. National Health and Nutrition Survey revealed these sobering statistics: in Canada, in 2004, 48 % of calorie intake at all ages was from ultra-processed products; in the United States, 67% of what children aged 2 to 19 consumed and 57% of what adults consumed in 2018 were ultra-processed products.

Most of us are aware that food intake is a huge physical health issue, as the quality of the diet is associated with chronic health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The public is less aware of the impact of nutrition on brain health.

Micronutrients and Mental Health Symptoms

Since the food choices in our society have evolved so much towards ultra-processed products, we need to learn about the substantial scientific evidence proving that micronutrient intake influences mental health symptoms, especially irritability, rabies. explosive and unstable mood.

The scientific evidence base for this claim is now vast, although it is so rarely mentioned in the media that few people are aware of it. A dozen studies in countries like Canada, Spain, Japan and Australia have shown that people who eat a healthy, complete diet have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than people who have. a poor diet (mainly ultra-processed products).

Correlation studies cannot prove that nutritional choices are the cause of mental health problems: for this, we look to compelling prospective longitudinal studies in which people without apparent mental health problems enter the study, are assessed for their health and eating habits, and then monitored over time. Some of the results have been astounding.

In a study of around 89,000 people in Japan with a follow-up of 10 to 15 years, the suicide rate among those consuming whole foods was half that of those with less healthy diets, highlighting a new direction important not yet covered in current suicide prevention programs. .

Here in Canada, equally powerful results show how children’s eating habits, along with adhering to other health guidelines on exercise and screen time, predicted which children aged 10 to 11 would be referred. for a diagnosis of a mental disorder within the next two years. It follows that nutrition education should be one of the first lines of treatment for children in this situation.

Irritability and unstable mood are often characteristic of depression, so it is relevant that several independent studies have shown that teaching people with depression, who ate relatively poor diets, how to switch to a complete diet Mediterranean style has resulted in significant improvements. A Mediterranean-style diet is generally high in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, seafood, and unsaturated fats such as olive oil.

In one of these studies, about a third of people who adopted a complete diet in addition to their regular treatment found that their depression was in remission after 12 weeks.

The remission rate in the control group using regular treatment but no diet change was less than one in 10. The whole diet group also reported about a 20% saving in their weekly food budget. This last point helps dispel the myth that a diet based on ultra-processed products is a way to save money.

Important evidence that irritability, explosive rage and unstable mood can be resolved with better micronutrient intake comes from studies evaluating micronutrient supplements to treat mental health issues. Much of the public awareness is confined to the ill-fated search for magic bullets: studies of one nutrient at a time. It’s a common way of thinking about causation (for problem X you need drug Y), but that’s not how our brains work.

To support brain metabolism, our brains need at least 30 micronutrients for the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, as well as for breaking down and eliminating metabolic byproducts. Numerous studies of multi-nutrient treatments have found improved mood regulation and a reduction in irritability and explosive rage, including in randomized, placebo-controlled trials in children with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and mood deregulation.

The proof is clear: a well-nourished population is better able to withstand stress. Hidden brain hunger is a modifiable factor contributing to emotional outbursts, aggression, and even loss of civility in public discourse.

Bonnie Kaplan does not currently receive funding from any organization as she is retired. But during her career, she received numerous grants from private foundations (donor funds) and provincial fundraising competitions. His only current affiliation is as a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the John W. Brick Foundation.

Julia J Rucklidge receives or has received research funding from the Health Research Council (NZ), Waterloo Foundation, Vic Davis Memorial Trust, University of Canterbury Foundation, Canterbury Medical Research Foundation, GAMA Foundation, and the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care.


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