Why is North America so sad? Maybe it’s the Standard American Diet (SAD)

Holy schnitzel on toast, is it just me, or are depression rates speeding faster than Usain Bolt? According to the DSM-5—the holy grail for the diagnosis of mental disorders (although, that could be debated, but I digress)—an estimated 17.3 MILLION adults in the US have experienced an episode of major depressive disorder, many with SEVERE impairment. For the people in the back: that’s 7% of the US population. In Canadian adolescents, the prevalence of self-reported mood disorder diagnosis by a health professional also increased from 2003 to 2014.

While statistics are useful to (1) scare my readers, and (2) alert us to the fact that indeed, Sherlock, there is a mystery to be solved—when it comes to depression, even one case is too many. We don’t need to have an epidemic on our hands to know depression is a serious, debilitating illness that can rob someone of months, years and decades of their life; and yes, it gets worse—depression is the leading cause of suicide.

Imagine you were critically depressed, contemplating taking your own life, only to discover that NUTRITION was at the root of your problem all along? But no one told you. Not your doctors, not your friends, and most certainly not the media. How incomprehensibly CHEATED would you feel? There you were, thinking you were eternally damned and defected, but really you just hadn’t been taught to program your operating system correctly? Hold my broccoli.

“The mechanisms of nutritional impact on the brain are likely to be many, complex and compound.”

Owen & Corfe, 2017

Maybe that’s your situation right now. Maybe you’re wallowing in a sea of despair and you can’t see a way out of it. You think that in order to get rid of your depression, you have to get rid of yourself. Stop right there. Let me tell you a secret: while you may not be able to see a way out of it, you may be able to eat your way out of it.

Now, this is my favourite part: it’s time to shine a big flashing strobe light (OK, the strobe is optional) on all the research that has finally emerged to confirm my most cherished theories. Without further adieu, here is how the SAD diet is making you miserable, fat, angry, and above all… “depressed“. *Shudders*. God, how I hate the word.

(Friendly reminder: The whole system is set up against you. They make you sick then they make you pay for it, not only in terms of your mental and physical health, but literally. They make you pay to seek treatment for diseases they know darn well they’ve caused.)

Look. For the people who don’t want to read the whole article, let me summarize it here. Not only is the food we’re told to eat high in sh*t, it’s also devoid of the key nutrients we need to thrive. And if you eat the sh*t they’ve created to make money and make you addicted, how do you think you’re going to feel? Energy -> output. Sh*t -> sh*tty feelings.

Now, on to the people who have enough energy to stick with me.

How the Standard American Diet Makes You Miserable

“The emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a crucial factor in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders suggests that diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.”

Sarris et al., Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry, the lancet

The Standard American Diet is a dietary pattern that includes high intakes of red meat, processed meat, packaged foods, candy, yadayadayada, not to mention conventionally-raised animal products, refined grains, GMO corn and high-fructose corn syrup. Let’s break this broken system down a little further.

A study examining the association between diet and the prevalence of mental health issues looked at the relationship between traditional Western (i.e., SAD) diet quality and mental disorders. The relationship was largely supported by the data: poor quality American diets are significantly related to the high prevalence of mental disorders. The scientists specified that “a dietary pattern comprising vegetables, fruit, beef, lamb, fish, and whole-grain foods (traditional) was associated with a lower likelihood of depressive and anxiety disorders, whereas a dietary pattern comprising processed and “unhealthy” foods (western) was associated with a higher likelihood of psychological symptoms and disorders” (Jacka et al., 2010).

And it doesn’t stop there. We can learn a great deal about a disease from what cures it: a recent meta-analysis confirmed that dietary interventions SIGNIFICANTLY reduce depressive symptoms.

How, biologically, does a poor diet trigger depression?

There are “numerous pathways through which diet could plausibly affect mental health. These include modulation of pathways involved in inflammation, oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, the gut microbiota, tryptophan–kynurenine metabolism, the HPA axis, neurogenesis and BDNF, epigenetics, and obesity (Fig. 2)” Marx et al., 2020.

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