Is your Brain’s Health Dictated by your Diet? By: Marie Parks

Do you have or know someone with a mental disorder or that struggles with obesity? Most likely you do; in 2016, one in five American adults had a mental health condition, and the percentage of children with depression has been on the rise since 2011.1 At the same time, rates of overweight and obesity in America have also been trending upward.2 What does this synchronized increase in mental disorders and obesity mean?

One thing that most Americans have in common is that we consume a “western diet”, characterized by high fat, sugar, salt, and processed foods. Consumption of these foods have been linked to both obesity3 and mental disorders.4,5 These relationships allow us to conclude that the western diet is the cause of mental health disorders in America due to the prevalence of sugar, artificial sweeteners, and food advertising.


Sugar isn’t just in candy, it is hidden in many “non-suspect” foods like condiments, sauces, and breads. So even if you’re trying to watch your intake of it, you may be falling victim to the havoc it wreaks not only on your waistline, but also your brain!

Excess sugar promotes out-of-control inflammation, which (among many undesirable outcomes) has direct links to depression, schizophrenia, and anxiety.6-8 High sugar consumption also hinders the activity of BDNF (brain-derived neurotorphic factor), which is associated with mood disorders and suicide attempts.9-11 When you eat too much sugar, it causes your brain to release dopamine and other neurochemicals that play a role in addiction. No wonder we can’t seem to get enough!


As a result of sugar’s bad reputation, many people choose sugar-free and low-calorie versions of foods and beverages, hence the continuous upward growth of diet drink consumption since 1999.12 Unfortunately, these diet foods and drinks contain artificial sweeteners like aspartame (i.e. Equal), sucralose (i.e. Splenda), and saccharin (i.e. Sweet N’ Low), which might cause effects worse than actual sugar.parks3.jpg

Artificial sweeteners increase the craving for more sweets because they trick the brain into
thinking it is consuming sugar, and those addiction areas of the brain are activated.13 Research in more than 250,000 people has found that depression is more common among frequent consumers of artificially sweetened beverages, most likely due to their reduction in serotonin (the feel good neurotransmitter).14,15


Not literally, but figuratively. Everywhere you look—TV, radio, magazines, billboards; you see ads for fast food, chips, cookies, and soda. Marketing these inexpensive, addicting foods heavily is like feeding into a drug addict’s needs with readily available, affordable drugs.

To make matters worse, the fast food industry targets children with their ads so that they become addicted as early as two years old.16 Most of the food ads shown on children’s networks are for fast food, candy, and other high sugar snacks.17 These “junk” foods shrink the hippocampus (the part of the brain needed for memory and learning). A smaller hippocampus is one of the telltale signs of depression.13



Your stomach is considered your “second brain” because next to your actual brain, it has the highest concentration of neurons. Billions of health-influencing bacteria reside in your intestines. In addition to medications and stress, the western diet18 is one of the top factors that contributes to an imbalance in the intestinal microbiome, promoting the growth of “bad” bacteria that cause us to crave more sugar and make us more prone to develop mental disorders.19,20 This is the vicious cycle of the western diet in America.


So how can we end this vicious cycle? It will take many years and cooperation among many players (e.g. government, food producers, media, nutrition educators, and society itself). To start, this blog has made you aware of the impact of a western diet on your mental health. We need to look out for sugar and hidden sugar (as it is also disguised as fructose,
glucose, corn syrup, tapioca starch, etc.), artificial sweeteners, and food ads. Before giving into your sweet tooth or following the next billboard to a nearby burger joint, take a step back and think “is it really worth it?”. Think of how what you eat and drink today impacts your brain function and mental well-being down the line. Lets work together to stop the western diet’s path of destruction. It starts with you!

Photos courtesy of


  1. Mental Health America. The State of Mental Health in America. Published 2016. Accessed February 21, 2017.
  2. Adult Obesity in the United States. Updated September 1,2016. Accessed February 21, 2017.
  3. Naja F, Hwalla N, Itani L, Karam S, Mehio Sibai A, Nasreddine L. A Western dietary pattern is associated with overweight and obesity in a national sample of Lebanese adolescents (13-19 years): a cross-sectional study. Br J Nutr. 2015 Dec 14; 114(11): 1909-1919. doi: 1017/S0007114515003657.
  4. Jacka FN, Pasco JA, Mykletun A, et al. Association of Western and Traditional Diets with Depression and Anxiety in Women. Am J Psychiatry. 2010 Mar;167(3):305-11. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.09060881.
  5. Quirk SE, Williams LJ, O’Neil A, et al. The association between diet quality, dietary patterns and depression in adults: a systematic review. BMC Psychiatry. 2013 Jun 27;13:175. doi: 10.1186/1471-244X-13-175.
  6. Miller AH, Maletic V, Raison CL. Inflammation and its discontents: the role of cytokines in the pathophysiology of major depression. Biol Psychiatry. 2009 May 1;65(9):732-41. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2008.11.029.
  7. The links between sugar and mental health. Mercola Web site. Updated December 22, 2009. Accessed February 21, 2017.
  8. Brogan, Kelly. From Gut to Brain: The Inflammation Connection. Kelly Brogan MD Web site. Accessed February 21, 2017.
  9. Molteni R, Barnard RJ, Ying Z, Roberts CK, Gómez-Pinilla F. A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning. 2002;112(4):803-14. Accessed February 21, 2017.
  10. Caviedes A, Lafourcade C, Soto C, Wyneken U. BDNF/NF-kB signaling in the neurobiology of depression. Curr Pharm Des. 2017 Jan 11. Accessed January 29, 2017.
  11. Ambrus L, Lindqvist D, Träskman-Bendz L, Westrin A. Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis hyperactivity is associated with decreased brain-derived neurotrophic factor in female suicide attempters. Nord J Psychiatry. 2016 Nov;70(8):575-81. doi: 10.1080/08039488.2016.1184310.
  12. S Department of Health and Human Services. NCHS Data Brief: Consumption of diet drinks in the United States, 2009-2010. Published October 2012. Accessed February 21, 2017. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602866.
  13. BBC Documentary Films. “Food on the Brain.” Online video clip. YouTube, 16 February 2016. Web. 21 February 2017.
  14. Is your artificial sweetener depressing you? Amen Clinics Web site. Updated June 21, 2011. Accessed February 21, 2017.
  15. BBC News. Diet drinks’ ‘link to depression’ questioned. Updated January 9, 2013. Accessed February 21, 2017
  16. Fast food FACTS in brief. Fast Food FACTS Web site. Updated 2013. Accessed February 21, 2017.
  17. Nearly 70% of food ads on Nickelodeon are for junk. Center for Science in the Public Interest Web site. Updated March 21, 2013. Accessed February 21, 2017.
  18. Conlon MA, Bird AR. The Impact of Diet and Lifestyle on Gut Microbiota and Human Health. 2015 Jan; 7(1): 17–44. doi: 10.3390/nu7010017.
  19. Dash S, Clarke G, Berk M, Jacka FN. The gut microbiome and diet in psychiatry: focus on depression. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2015 Jan;28(1):1-6. doi: 10.1097/YCO.0000000000000117.
  20. Evrensel A, Ceylan ME. The Gut-Brain Axis: The Missing Link in Depression. Clin Psychopharmacol Neurosci. 2015 Dec; 13(3): 239–244. doi: 9758/cpn.2015.13.3.239.


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