New research released today (16 January) adds to the growing body of evidence that food can have an effect upon a person’s mental health and behaviour that is both immediate and lasting because of the way it affects the structure and function of the brain.

Feeding Minds, a report published by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) and Sustain suggests that some foods damage the brain by releasing toxins or oxidants that harm healthy brain cells, while an unbalanced diet that fails to include adequate amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fats, amino acids, vitamins and minerals and water can lead to mental ill-health.

Changing methods of farming have introduced higher levels and different types of fat into our diet. To take one example, chickens now reach their slaughter weight twice as fast as they did 30 years ago, which has changed the nutritional profile of the meat. Whereas a chicken carcass used to be 2% fat, it is now 22%. Also, the diet fed to chickens has changed dramatically, which has reduced omega-3 fatty acids and increased omega-6 fatty acids in chicken meat.

This is significant in that the fats we eat directly affect the structure and substance of the brain cell membranes. Essential fatty acids omega-3 and –6 make up 20% of the fat in our brain, and must be derived from our diet as the body cannot make them itself. Unequal intakes of the two different types of fat are implicated in mental health problems, with experts suggesting that the Western diet now includes too much omega-6 and insufficient omega-3.

The report makes 14 key recommendations aimed at government departments and a range of other stakeholders.

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