Some of the simplest and healthiest habits in life are the most difficult for us to maintain. For years, medical professionals shrugged off this simple truth, but recently more and more of us are acknowledging our responsibility in this realm. It takes time to sit down with each patient and tease out where they need help, but we know a simple, quick lecture to “eat plenty of fruits and vegetables” just doesn’t work.
Eating, breathing, and exercising are some of the most basic things we do to keep our bodies functioning well, or not. Over time, our occasional unhealthy behaviors can become habits, and we feel like we’re doing it all wrong. I cannot count how my times I’ve personally had to start again with eating healthier, meditating/breathing, and exercising more regularly. As much as I wish I could be a shining beacon of health, one who never wavers, I’m just like my patients. I too need reminders and have to start with the basics.
Walking through the park today, I saw two men standing on stilts. Then I noticed they were juggling, tossing the juggling clubs back and forth to each other. I learned something: Try as they might, they couldn’t learn this feat without some help. They’d brought someone else along as an assistant, and every time they dropped a club, their assistant would hand it back. Though this post isn’t about juggling, the image of the jugglers is relevant.
Learning to do new things on our own requires assistance in the beginning, and when we’re struggling. I find this to be especially true for some of the easiest things in life, like eating, breathing, and exercising. We know how to do these things, kind of. Many of us are struggling. And we may not know where or why we’re struggling, which is exactly why outside assistance could help.
Being a doctor, like in many jobs, I spend a fair amount of time confirming what I already suspect. So it came as no surprise to me when a new study by French researchers added to the mounting body of evidence suggesting our eating habits and food choices have influence on our moods over the long term. In this study, they followed 12,000 people over 10 years, looking at their eating habits and depression symptoms. What’d they find? Not surprisingly, the healthier the diet, the less likely a person was to have symptoms of depression. The authors acknowledged there was a chance people were eating unhealthy diets because they were depressed, and not the other way around, but they were careful when reviewing their data to be fairly certain this wasn’t the case.
Depression is an interesting condition. In nearly every case, a single cause cannot be found. It’s likely that genetic, physical, mental, emotional, and societal factors all contribute to someone eventually experiencing a “depressive episode.” Likewise, effective treatments usually address it from more than one angle. The foods we eat and how often we eat them are one angle.
Our eating habits provide the building blocks (nutrients) for our bodies to create the chemicals we need. And each food has different amounts of particular blocks. If the building blocks aren’t provided in adequate amounts, our bodies react with symptoms.
Whether it’s unhealthy dietary habits causing depression or vice versa, it’s clear that they go together. Personally, I doubt there’s a one-way causation. Most things in biology and nature exist in cycles. The key to breaking cycles is intervening at a control point, where the cycle can be interrupted. Our dietary choices are control points. After all, we ultimately choose what foods we put into our and our families’ bodies. And food is arguably our best opportunity to introduce beneficial substances to our body. From personal and clinical experience, I can tell you, it’s easier to remember to eat than remember to take a pill. Though making a decision to eat healthy, for just this meal, is a little harder, it’s doable.
And eating healthy is no secret. It’s the same story that we’ve been hearing our whole life: Eating fruits, veggies, and fish are seriously healthy things to do. These foods are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and omega-3 fats like DHA and EPA. Avoiding and minimizing processed foods appears to be healthy, too. That’s probably because these foods are notoriously low in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and omega-3 fats. In the study cited, they also found that frequently eating low-fat items increased incidence of depression symptoms, though there could be a number of reasons for that. Fats, especially the omega-3s DHA and EPA, are crucial for our nervous systems to form and operate optimally, and that could be one reason. Another could be that people who ate those foods more frequently were obese, which is associated with depression.
In the coming years, I suspect we’ll also find our gut bacteria have major health consequences far beyond digestion, likely influencing our brains and thus our moods. Animal research is already hinting at that. Also a number of human diseases beyond the digestive tract are being researched for the role of gut bacteria. And this would agree with the whole fruits-and-veggies thing, because the beneficial bacteria in our guts thrive on the fiber found in these foods.
So what’s the take-home message from all this information? Well, in the study linking depression with dietary habits, they point out a World Health Organization report that forecasts depression to be the second leading cause of disability by 2020, just behind heart disease. But we can do something about this. We can change our eating habits, even if just for one meal a day (or, hell, just one meal a week!). We can ask for help, in the form of information, and accountability from our health-care providers.
Encouraging and supporting patients to have healthy eating habits is something I and many doctors are pushing for these days. My call to action is not only to the medical professionals out there, but more importantly, to you as a patient. When you go to see your doctor, ask them to help you eat healthier. Ask them to check in on your diet. By and large, we give patients what they ask for, as long as we feel it won’t harm them. And believe me, no doctor will think eating healthy is harmful (if they do, run like hell). So ask, and you shall receive. And if that kind of care is not covered by your insurance (if you’re fortunate enough to have it), do something about that. Call them and let them know you want preventative care that covers quality nutritional advice. If demand increases, they’ll find a way to meet it, or their competitors will. Alternatively, find those services on your own — it will be worth the investment.
Dr. Michael Stanclift