Fats: The Slippery Slope in a Mental Health Diet

Due to the stigma surrounding mental health, a lot of people are unaware of how diet may affect emotional wellness. Thankfully evidence uncovered over the past couple of decades has shown that diet plays a crucial role in how our brains function. By following a mental health diet rich in healthy fats, you may experience fewer bouts of depression and anxiety. So let’s look at the kinds of fats there are, and how they may affect your cognitive function.

What is Fat?

A Look at Fat

Seems like a simple question, but it’s complex to give an answer when you really think about it. In humans, we think of fat around our belly. That bulge is adipose tissue, and it’s created by the types of fat we consume [1].

Adipose tissue is formed by the fat cells left in the system following the digestion of food. Even obese people can be considered healthy based on which type of fat cells are in their adipose tissue. In fact, research indicates, one-third of obese people are generally healthy [2]. That’s what makes fats such a slippery slope in a mental health diet.

Benefits of Fats: Nutrient Absorption

Our body needs fat from plants, seeds, oils, and animal flesh. Dietary fat from our food sources is one of the three macronutrients (alongside protein and carbohydrates) to a balanced diet.

Nutritional fat is excellent for vitamin absorption. That’s because fat soaks up the nutrients in your food and supplements, sheltering them from dissipating in stomach acids in your gut biome. That allows nutrients to make their way to the small intestines where they can eventually be distributed back into the system.

Benefits of Fats: Healing a Leaky Gut

In addition, fats help promote the growth of healthy cells along the gut lining. This recovery is essential for healing a Leaky Gut. Amino acids in healthy fats tighten the tight junctions, which stops toxins from permeating small intestines and leaking into the bloodstream.

Vagus Nerve Plays a Pivotal Role in Mental Health

Due to the gut-brain connection, toxins that seep into the bloodstream will trigger the vagus nerve. As a result, your mind will get a message of distress. That is where there is a strong correlation between the gut-brain-axis.

Now, before you go deep-frying some chicken in vegetable oil, not all oils are healthy fats for a mental health diet. In fact, some may exasperate the mental health symptoms you are experiencing. Therefore, you need to differentiate between the different types of fats and which are conducive to a healthy gut diet plan.

Types of Fats in Standard American Diet (SAD)

Fats are like the Tale of Two Cities. They’re the best of times and the worst of times. Dietary fats come in a variety of forms, and each one interacts differently within our gut biome [3]. Here’s a look at the nutritional fats found in the Standard American Diet (SAD).

Saturated Fats

The name saturated refers to the fact that the fats are covered in hydrogen. While given a bit of a reprieve in recent years, these types are fats are still the type you do not want to heavily indulge in.

Saturated fats are higher in omega-6 fatty acids. These are harder for your body to break down. Not to mention, omega-6s aren’t needed in as abundant as omega3s.

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These types of fats are commonly found in animal products and are exceptionally high in many processed portions of meat. However, you can also find the presence of saturated fats in foods in accordance with a healthy gut diet plan like coconut oil.

Trans Fats

These are an artificial form of fat that was meant to replace saturated fats back in the day. Despite this practice, most companies have banned this additive due to the fact that trans fats sharply increase your risk of heart disease [4].

TRANS FATS, SATURATED FATS, AND DEPRESSION

An analysis of Dietary Fat Intake and the Risk of Depression proclaimed that saturated fats and trans fats are staples in SAD. Researchers noted that there is a direct link between these fats and the prevalence of depression in the West [5].

That analysis also explained,

“Findings suggest that cardiovascular disease and depression may share some common nutritional determinants related to subtypes of fat intake.”

PLos One

Furthermore, the analysis compared dietary fat intake in the West in comparison to a region with lower depression levels (and longer lives, plus a lower risk of cardiovascular issues)–the south Mediterranean.

The analysis stated,

“In consistency with this trend, the so-called “Western” food pattern (rich in SFA (saturated fats) and TFA (trans fats) and common in Northern Europe and USA) has been reported as a relevant risk factor for depression. Suicide rates and lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in Europe show higher levels in Northern countries and the lowest levels in Southern Mediterranean countries.”

PLoS One

The reason for this descrepency comes down to the fats consumed in both diets. While SAD is rich in saturated fats, the Mediterannean is rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

Polyunsaturated Fats and Monounsaturated Fats

Monounsaturated fats aren’t laced with hydrogen. One fat molecule has enough room for one hydrogen molecule. Polyunsaturated fats mean there are many other compounds included; however, these molecules are not hydrogen dominant.

UNSATURATED FATS, HEART DISEASE, AND DEPRESSION

Unsaturated fats are far more likely to reduce the risk of heart disease. It is also known to slow the progression of heart disease in people who already have it.

The Key to Well-Being?

As we pointed out earlier, there is a correlation between cardiovascular disease and mental illness. By process of elimination, unsaturated fats should be an excellent addition to any mental health diet.

Since fats are where we store our energy, consuming healthy fats will keep you energized throughout the day. Consuming unsaturated fats not only leaves you satiated but can help increase your mood simply by giving you more willpower to do things such as working out and spending more time outdoors.

Unsaturated fats is more commonly found in plant foods. You can find them in many plant-based oils, as well as avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds. Due to the food sources, they’re derived from, these healthy fats for a mental health diet are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids and a Mental Health Diet

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that those who follow SAD don’t get enough of. Instead, they fill up on omega-6 fatty acids. We need omega-3s for a stable mental health diet.

EPA, DHA, and Cognitive Function

What gives omega-3s their mental health credibility are two pivotal acids known as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Research on these omega-3 fatty acids in a mental health diet found,

“Individual clinical trials have suggested benefits of EPA treatment in borderline personality disorder and of combined omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid treatment for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The evidence to date supports the adjunctive use of omega-3 fatty acids in the management of treatment unresponsive depression and schizophrenia. As these conditions are associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease and diabetes mellitus, omega-3 fatty acids should also benefit the physical state of these patients [6].”


Drugs

This further exemplifies the strong bond forged throughout the gut brain connection. Whatever we consume has an immense impact on our mental health. Therefore, consuming healthy fats can alter how mind responds to disruptances in our gut biome.

Omega-3s and Mood Regulation

One COHORT study from 2012 mentioned that,

“A healthy pattern rich in omega-3 fatty acids intakes has been linked with mood regulation. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and contribute to brain functioning and serotonin neurotransmission (e.g. providing fluidity to neurons cell membrane). Furthermore, there is evidence that adding omega-3 fatty acids to antidepressants may improve mood in major depression [7].”

PLos One

These findings suggest that eating foods high in Omega-3s have a positive effect on your mood. Furthermore, supplementing with Omega-3s may even help to boost the effects of anti-depressants in a far healthier and much more natural way.

healthy gut diet plan
Healthy Fats for a Healthy Life

These fatty acids are incredibly healthy for you and are most often found in fish. However, these have also been fortified into orange juice and some faux meat products. Lastly, you can also find omega-3s in chia seeds, flax seeds, and other plant-based oils. This way, even people who do not eat fish can get enough in their diets.

Too Many Fats in a Mental Health Diet

We are currently living in a time where people are getting over a longstanding fear of dietary fats. Although this is a good thing, some are starting to go too far in the opposite direction.

Consuming a diet full of unhealthy fats are not known to lead to any good health causes, and in fact, can actively cause harm both physically and mentally.

As one study put it:

“A dietary pattern characterized by a high intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy and antioxidants and low intakes of animal foods was apparently associated with a decreased risk of depression. A dietary pattern characterized by a high consumption of red and/or processed meat, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter, potatoes and high-fat gravy, and low intakes of fruits and vegetables is associated with an increased risk of depression [8].”

Science Direct

While fat is in itself healthy, consuming too many processed and fatty foods can lead one to have more depression than eating a diet with more fruits and vegetables and a moderate amount of fats.

Another thing that needs to be considered, is that more processed and saturated fats are not that good for gut health.

Research finds,

“A diet high in saturated fatty acids led to an increased proportion of intestinal Firmicutes and decreased intestinal flora diversity. This study suggests that dietary fats and saturated fatty acid intake may affect intestinal flora composition [9].”


World J Gastroenterol

On the flip side, studies have also shown that more healthy fats can increase gut biodiversity, and reduce the presence of harmful stomach bacteria.

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Figure out which stomach bacteria may be causing gastrointestinal distress through microbiome testing. At Thryve Microbiome Testing, we can determine which intestinal flora is flourishing from unhealthy fats.

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From there, we formulate personalized probiotics that can help bring balance to your gut biome. Via the gut brain connection, adverse mental illness symptoms may subside.

When it comes to diet, the best thing to do would be to have a fair amount of fats in your meals. Be sure to get them from plant sources whenever possible.

Diets high in nuts, seeds, olive, avocado, and fatty fish can help to lower your risk for various diseases and boost happiness levels. Luckily for you, we can help you remember to add these foods into your healthy gut diet plan. Our specialists work with you to create a nutrition guide you can follow, including the best sources of fats for a mental health diet.

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Resources

[1] Sears, B., & Ricordi, C. (2010). Anti-inflammatory nutrition as a pharmacological approach to treat obesity. Journal of obesity2011, 431985. doi:10.1155/2011/431985

[2] Karelis, Antony D, et al. “The Metabolically Healthy but Obese Individual Presents a Favorable Inflammation Profile.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2005, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15855252.

[3] “Types of Fat.” The Nutrition Source, 24 July 2018, www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/.

[4] Clarke, R., & Lewington, S. (2006). Trans fatty acids and coronary heart disease. BMJ (Clinical research ed.)333(7561), 214. doi:10.1136/bmj.333.7561.214

[5] Akbaraly, Tasnime N, et al. “Dietary Pattern and Depressive Symptoms in Middle Age.” The British Journal of Psychiatry : the Journal of Mental Science, Royal College Of Psychiatrists, Nov. 2009, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19880930.

[6] Peet, Malcolm, and Caroline Stokes. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Treatment of Psychiatric Disorders.” Drugs, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2005, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15907142.

[7] Le Port, A., Gueguen, A., Kesse-Guyot, E., Melchior, M., Lemogne, C., Nabi, H., … Czernichow, S. (2012). Association between dietary patterns and depressive symptoms over time: a 10-year follow-up study of the GAZEL cohort. PloS one7(12), e51593. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051593

[8] Le, Y., & Et al. (2017, July). Dietary patterns and depression risk: A meta-analysis. Science Direct. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165178117301981