Ask the counsellor | Dr Anthony Perrone

With all the talk about smart foods are they really good for your mental health?

Smart foods or superfoods are not new concepts in eating, in fact, Indigenous cultures have been eating and using food products for thousands of years to the betterment of their overall health. 

In fact, Professor John Carty, who is Head of Anthropology at the Museum of South Australia, states that “People felt the way about Aboriginal art that we do now about our native food. And in one generation, that perception has shifted so dramatically." Aboriginal people were sustained by a thriving food culture, with research revealing bush foods as superior sources of vitamins, antioxidants and minerals. 

A study published in the British Medical Journal, in January 2012, concluded that age-related cognitive decline begins much earlier than expected, by our mid-40s. Scientists identified that acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter, is responsible for forming new connections and strengthening neural pathways in the brain. Therefore without healthy levels of acetylcholine, the brain can physically shrink at which point, the damage can be very difficult to repair. Natural compounds such as Alpha GPC, Huperzine A, Bacopa Monnieri, Lion's Mane Mushroom, and Ginkgo Biloba may be able to increase acetylcholine.

We also know that saturated fats clog arteries and diminish brain function, however, omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, boost mood, mind and memory, and possibly lower Alzheimer's risk by up to 60 per cent. Likewise, there is a ‘bowl full of fruit’, pun intended, of research that tells us colourful fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and other unprocessed foods contain a wealth of antioxidants that protect delicate brain tissue from damage caused by oxygen free radicals. This damage is associated with memory loss and even dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

According to Mental Health America, green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, and sage have high amounts of folate or folic acid. Increased intake of folate is associated with a lower risk of depression. Folate also improves concentration, overall brain function and prevents damage from those free radicals. Broccoli is another green vegetable that is high in vitamin K, which helps enhance brain function and promotes brain healing following trauma or illness. Additionally, spinach contains an antioxidant called lutein, which has thought to help protect against cognitive decline.

The Mental Health Foundation of the UK recently reported, contrary to the research about the positive effects of eating healthy, over the last 60 years there has been a 34 per cent decline in vegetable consumption and 59 per cent of people eating less fish thereby decreasing the consumption of essential omega-3 fatty acids.

 A 2017 report by the ABC’s Patrick Carey on Brain food: What you eat could help manage depression and anxiety stated, just having a healthy gut can improve your mood firstly by increasing your overall sense of well-being but also because it has a direct effect on your immune system, which has a high level of crossover with mental health.

Peter Latz, world-renowned Botanist who was born in Alice Springs, who penned the book ‘Bushfires & Bushtucker, simply said: “Your diet has a profound effect on how clearly you think, concentrate and remember”.  

Dr Anthony Perrone is college counsellor at Trinity Anglican College. The views expressed in this column are Dr Perrone's and not necessarily those of Trinity Anglican College.