Ask the Doctor: Eat Better, Feel Better!

The sheer convenience of eating processed foods makes them highly attractive, especially when you’re depressed. But what’s the effect inside your body?

“We are what we eat” may be a cliché, but it’s true! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 68 percent of all Americans are considered overweight or obese. People with bipolar disorder are not alone in their tendency to reach for fast foods, simple “carbs,” and caffeinated energy drinks. Eating better could help you feel better!

How does eating processed foods affect my body?

Several large studies have shown that dietary patterns high in processed foods and simple sugars are associated with increased incidence of depression, whereas diets high in whole foods like vegetables, whole grains, and fatty fish are associated with reduced incidence. Research indicates that the unfavorable nutrient ratio in processed foods contributes to the body perceiving that it is in a chronic state of inflammation; in other words, you feel lousy.

Inflammation is a normal immune response, and it’s usually a good thing: acute inflammation after injury or infection is the body’s attempt to heal itself. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is when your body no longer has the ability to turn off the inflammatory response and it starts damaging healthy tissue in your body and sending signals to your brain that can influence neuronal circuits to depress your mood; some studies have shown that inflammation can actually lead to depression. Chronic inflammation also has been linked to a higher risk for so-called lifestyle diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Can you explain “good” vs. “bad” fats?

The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, a polyunsatured fat found most abundantly in some kinds of seafood, nuts, and seeds, are well publicized. These “good fats” have been shown to combat inflammation. Less talked about is the ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the modern diet. Although omega-6 is also a polyunsatured fat, excessive levels may contribute to inflammation in the absence of adequate omega-3s. Vegetable oils used to manufacture processed foods, including safflower, corn and, soybean, are a common dietary source of omega-6.

The evidence that diets of individuals with bipolar disorder are of lower quality overall comes from research in which participants were asked to maintain a food diary; subsequently, dietary elements in the blood were measured. Analyses found a lower intake of polyunsatured fatty acids and a greater amount of saturated fatty acids—the “bad fats” found in whole-fat dairy foods, fatty meats, and palm and coconut oils. Furthermore, omega-3 was disproportionately reduced compared to omega-6. High levels of omega-6 relative to omega-3 are associated with inflammatory states and have been shown to be unfavorable for mood disorders and other health conditions.

How can I improve my diet?

Here are some tips for better eating:

Avoid mindless snacking. Practice mindful awareness of each bite. Think about why you are eating right now as well as what. Bored? Restless? Maybe a walk around the block is what you really need.

Plan ahead. Many people with bipolar are prone to impulse buying, so thinking ahead about meals and making a shopping list is very helpful. Keep fruit handy on the counter, carrot sticks prepped and ready in the fridge. Carry healthy snacks with you to cut down on fast-food stops.

Shop smart. When shopping for groceries at a large store, shop around the outer sections first—that is where the healthier foods are typically found. Be selective on items in the middle of the store, and read labels. Locate a farmers’ market and explore it and ask questions.

Keep a food diary. As an exercise in mindful eating, write down everything you eat or drink for a few days (there are several freely available smart phone apps to make this easier). Often just the simple action of being aware of what you are putting in your mouth is enough to spur you to make wiser choices.

Bon appétit!

Printed as “Ask the Doctor: Eat Better, Feel Better,” Winter 2017

Scroll to Top