Nutrition & Mental Health

The topic of mental health receives a lot of attention, in the endless wake of redundant, upsetting violence that permeates our society. As of the 150th day of 2023, there have been 263 mass shootings. I’d like to contribute to the conversation around mental health and be a part of the solution moving forward. In the spirit of helping, I’d like to focus on the connections between mental health and nutrition. As many of you know already, the Standard American Diet (SAD) has been on the struggle bus for generations. Ultra processed foods, refined grains, cheap farming, toxic and persistent pesticides and herbicides, and tons of sugar dictate traffic, habits, and play into our emotions. The Western diet is generally characterized by high intakes of pre-packaged foods, refined grains, factory-raised red meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, candy and sweets, fried foods, industrially produced animal products, and refined oils. The high cost of producing quality, nutritious food is often cited as a barrier to accessibility and higher quality of life for all. Does that still hold true if one were to compare the cost of good food to the price our society pays in morbidity and mortality - including… violence, years of life lost , loss of productivity, and health care? Is that too much of a stretch?

Mental Health America (MHA) was founded in 1909 and is the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and promoting the overall mental health of all. According to MHA, 21% of adults are experiencing a mental illness, as in 1 in 5 people you know or 50 million Americans. 55% of adults with mental illness receive no treatment, so that's 28 million people who are at risk of potentially causing physical or emotional harm to themselves or others. 60% of the youth in our country suffering from major depression also receive no treatment. Assuming one cannot afford treatment, or perhaps does not want treatment for reasons we cannot control, what can be done to make an impact?

What can we not live without, that could hold one of the keys to reversing these disturbing mental health trends? Could our own nutrition play a part in a safer, healthier future?

2023 is on pace to break the record for most mass killings in a year. We need to try something different as a community, and better food choices may be one of many things that could have a positive impact.

In order to recalibrate our understanding of the American food system, I’m going to suggest we focus on the beginning of the problem and work our way back to the present. Factory farming animals started in the 1930’s to minimize cost, increase production and of course, profit. In the 1970’s, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz told farmers to “get big or get out.” Put that into perspective. Factory farming is relatively new and it’s done many lifetimes of damage to our environment already. In parallel to factory farming being championed by our government, the USDA gave Americans advice that backfired. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), established in 1862, has two main duties: to ensure a sufficient and reliable food supply and to provide information on subjects related to agriculture, the latter being interpreted to mean making dietary advice available to citizens. From the 1970’s through the 2000’s, the USDA gave poor advice for Americans to avoid fats, even good fats, in an effort to curb heart disease. Low fat diets were even promoted to help with weight loss.

In 1977, the U.S. Senate's Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by George McGovern, put the diet-heart hypothesis on the national agenda with its publication of the “Dietary Goals in the United States.” As the first comprehensive statement by any branch of government on risk factors in the American diet, McGovern stated, “Too much fat, too much sugar or salt, can be and are directly linked to heart disease, cancer, obesity and stroke.” For the first time, the federal government told Americans to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, and fish, to eat fewer high-fat foods, and to substitute nonfat for whole milk. But in these same years, social, economic, and technological forces were at work to sabotage these optimistic—and perhaps misguided—efforts to change Americans’ eating habits.

By the 1980s, food producers had begun to realize that low fat could provide profit-making opportunities. The industry began replacing fat with sugar in processed foods, leading to what would by the 1990s become known as the “Snackwell's phenomenon,” low-fat foods that had just as many calories as the former high-fat versions. In 1988, in an effort both to raise funds and promote better health, the AHA introduced its program to label foods with its “heart healthy” seal of approval, the now-familiar heart with the white check on it. Food companies would pay to label their foods with the AHA seal of approval. By 1990, AHA endorsed food products started to appear in grocery stores, but there was a problem: fresh foods were not labeled. This exclusion could suggest to consumers that processed foods are the heart-healthiest. By 1997, fifty-five companies were participating with over 600 products certified, many of which were cereal products, including Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, Fruity Marshmallow Krispies, and Low-Fat Pop-Tarts. You can begin to see how a profusion of products low in fat but high in sugar and calories might ironically promote the fattening of America, even while being labeled heart-healthy.

In 1992, after much controversy and negotiation, the USDA released its first and long-awaited food pyramid that lent full support to the ideology of low fat. Wide press coverage gave the pyramid much publicity, and it quickly became an icon. The pyramid soon became, “most widely distributed and best recognized nutrition education device ever produced in this country,” (Nestle). The tradition of low-calorie, low-fat diets, and scientific and federal promotion of low fat could not have conquered America without the participation of the popular press. Two popular health sources, namely, Prevention magazine (f. 1950)—widely sold in grocery stores and with a large subscriber list—and The New York Times, with its cadre of science writers, have been (and continue to be) assiduous in reporting on the latest scientific studies and federal guidelines. Both have subscribed to and promoted the low-fat diet since the 1980s. A 1993 survey of 17,000 women found that 86% of those interviewed got nutritional information from magazines, a principal source being food advertisements. As one could imagine, this source of information can blur the lines between education and persuasion.

Students of obesity have cited factors such as the increased availability of processed foods, the introduction of labor-saving and entertainment technologies (most prominently television), the rise of car culture, suburbs without sidewalks, the introduction and proliferation of fast foods, and junk machines in public schools. One science writer has argued that high fructose corn syrup, which became a staple ingredient of the soft drink industry as well as numerous other foods, was a main contributor to the fattening of America from the 1970s onward as well. Low-fat recommendations competed with the reality of grocery stores and restaurants filled with fattening foods and the decreasing cost and increasing availability of food of all sorts. Food became widely available 24/7. Americans ate more processed foods. The changing social structure—for example, the two-worker family, or the single parent family—meant that families ate out more often.

Walter Willett and his colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health promoted the Mediterranean diet. Willett and his colleagues maintain that trans fats should not be eaten at all and saturated fats kept low. They declared polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats heart-healthy, to be consumed in moderation. Although vegetable oils were calorie-laden, they were important for weight reduction because they promoted satiety. A diet with moderate fat intake was more likely to result in long-term adherence, weight loss, and maintenance.

So what does all this nutritional confusion have to do with mental health? Research from the past ten years or so has shown that the more ultra processed foods (UPFs) a person eats, the higher the chances that they feel depressed and anxious. Recent research has demonstrated a link between highly processed foods and low mood. In one 2022 study of over 10,000 adults in the United States, the more UPFs participants ate, the more likely they were to report mild depression or feelings of anxiety. “There was a significant increase in mentally unhealthy days for those eating 60 percent or more of their calories from UPFs,” Dr. Hecht, the study’s author, said. “This is not proof of causation, but we can say that there seems to be an association.”

New research has also found a connection between high UPF consumption and cognitive decline. A 2022 study that followed nearly 11,000 Brazilian adults over a decade found a correlation between eating ultra processed foods and worse cognitive function (the ability to learn, remember, reason and solve problems). “While we have a natural decline in these abilities with age, we saw that this decline accelerated by 28 percent in people who consume more than 20 percent of their calories from UPFs,” said Natalia Gomes Goncalves, a professor at the University of São Paulo Medical School and the lead author of the study.

It’s also worth considering the possibility that the link between highly processed foods and mental health works in both directions. “Diet does influence mood, but the reverse is also true,” said Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “When you get stressed, anxious or depressed, you tend to eat more unhealthy foods, in particular ultra processed foods that are high in sugar, fat and chemical additives.”

As complex and mysterious as the brain is, it would not be responsible to suggest better nutrition is the one solution for better mental health. However, it is one potential solution under the control of every parent and adult that reads this blog. As our Chief Farming Officer likes to say, “Pay your Farmer now, or pay your doctor later!” Why wait until it’s too late? I’d like to leave you with one staple food that crosses cultures and cuisines with ease. It’s still very misunderstood but holds so much value in the nutritional benefits for you and your loved ones. Chicken! Shocker!

Chicken is a nutrient-dense source of high quality protein, and pairs great with a variety of fruits and vegetables. To maximize the nutritional value of your chicken, consider using cooking methods that limit excess calories such as baking, poaching, or grilling instead of frying. When you shop online or at the grocery store, you can go one step further and find chicken that’s organic and/or raised on grass, as opposed to the other 99% of chicken in our country that’s raised in confined animal feeding operations. Other than the animal welfare concerns, there are considerable differences between commodity chicken and pasture-raised chicken on a nutritional basis! According to (hunt down Paul Price / Cameron Molberg reference articles on pastured poultry)_____, pasture-raised chicken tends to be higher in health promoting omega-3 fatty acids, iron, and antioxidants such as Vitamin E.

Evidence from controlled experimental studies suggests that the high grazing / forage-based diets prescribed under organic farming standards may be the main reason for differences in fatty acid profiles. Why does this matter? Organic meat has higher polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs play an important role in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease, stemming from evidence obtained through a number of epidemiological studies and clinical trials) compared to conventional meat. The key takeaway in understanding the nutrition of the chicken meat is that you eat the same fat in basically the same proportion as your poultry eats it. Therefore, it’s predictable that when the flock eats healthier fats, their meat is healthier.

The good fats are divided into monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). It’s the PUFAs that many marketers pick up on because it contains the omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids—both fats are needed by the body. It’s the relationship or the ratio that matters. The goal is to have a lower Omega 6:3 ratio. Omega 3 fats tend to reduce inflammation and Omega 6 fatty acids tend to encourage inflammation. An increased ratio increases the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Omega 3 fatty acids promote heart health, reduce blood pressure, and raise good cholesterol (HDL). Some studies link Omega 3’s to a reduced risk of dementia.
Amercans receive 30% of their caloric intake and 40% of their fat intake from meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs. Simply changing that diet has many barriers, including cost, accessibility, and preference. Poultry and eggs, for example, have become utilitarian foods and have additional health benefits beyond their fat profile. You can create significant change to the American diet, says Collette, just by improving the health of the animals we use as food.

Pasture forage is a direct and significant way to improve the nutritional profile of the animal because the forage is a good source of the Omega 3 PUFAs. Grains/cereals (e.g., corn, wheat) primarily provide Omega 6 PUFAs. In her presentation, Collette acknowledged that although breed and gender (though she didn’t cite a gender) may affect the nutritional profile, it will not be as significant as pasture. Pasture-raised chicken meat tends to be higher in iron, higher in Omega 3, have a lower Omega 6:3 ratio, and be higher in antioxidants (Vitamin E, for example).

When we talk about nutrition, fat gets our attention and dominates the conversation, but there’s nutritional benefits beyond fats. Vitamin E, for example, is an antioxidant, and pasture-raised chicken has higher densities of vitamin E. The U.S. Health and Human Services says that one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and even if a person is of a healthy body weight, poor diet increases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis. The primary line of defense to these diseases is diet, and when it comes to the poultry you raise, your customers can positively affect their diet and their health by choosing poultry raised on pasture.
Research indicates that consuming a diet with a high omega 6:3 ratio promotes inflammation and many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and autoimmune diseases [5]. The omega 6:3 ratio in the modern Western diet may be as high as 25:1 and optimal recommendations are typically stated at less than 5:1.

Free-range and organic as regulated by the federal government only implies that the birds have access to the outdoors. Actually ensuring that the birds go outside or providing sufficient space for the birds to move around comfortably is not a requirement under these claims. The test results indicate differences between a pasture-raised broiler and a chicken allowed to “free- range” inside a CAFO. Vitamins D3 and E are notably higher on the pasture-raised broilers. Likewise, the omega 6:3 ratios between the pasture-raised broilers and the conventionally raised broilers are in stark contrast. This study examined a select nutritional profile of broilers raised on pasture in a typical production environment and provides evidence that the feed input and a pasture-based production practice do have a quantifiable and beneficial effect on the finished carcass.

So! We’ve covered the troubling situation in our country that affects every community, every school, every company and every family. The mental health crisis is only getting worse. This bleak picture is compounded by the poor standards we hold as a society, when it comes to our nutrition. I can only offer one solution backed by the data presented to you, and that is the undeniable power of good chicken. The rest is up to you.