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March 25, 2014

Can what you eat affect your mental health?

Jodi Corbitt had been battling depression for decades and by 2010 had resigned herself to taking antidepressant medication for the rest of her life. Then she decided to start a dietary experiment.

To lose weight, the 47-year-old Catonsville, Md., mother stopped eating gluten, a protein found in wheat and related grains. Within a month she had shed several pounds — and her lifelong depression.

"It was like a veil lifted and I could see life more clearly," she recalled. "It changed everything."

Corbitt had stumbled into an area that scientists have recently begun to investigate: whether food can have as powerful an impact on the mind as it does on the body.

Research exploring the link between diet and mental health "is a very new field; the first papers only came out a few years ago," said Michael Berk, a professor of psychiatry at the Deakin University School of Medicine in Australia. "But the results are unusually consistent, and they show a link between diet quality and mental health."

"Diet quality" refers to the kinds of foods that people eat, how often they eat them and how much of them they eat. In several studies, including a 2011 analysis of more than 5,000 Norwegians, Berk and his collaborators have found lower rates of depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder among those who consumed a traditional diet of meat and vegetables than among people who followed a modern Western diet heavy with processed and fast foods or even a health-food diet of tofu and salads.

"Traditional diets — the kinds of foods your grandmother would have recognized — have been associated with a lower risk of mental health issues," Berk said. Interestingly, that traditional diet may vary widely across cultures, including wheat for some people but not for others; the common element seems to be whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods.

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