Despite the fact that most AMA doctors mention diet as an afterthought when dealing with an illness, most people would still be able to make the connection between diet and certain illnesses. We see public service announcements on television for cancer or high blood pressure that remind us that these illnesses are diet related. If you eat cereal for breakfast, chances are your box says that it may help prevent heart disease or lower your cholesterol.
But how many people would relate an emotional or mental problem to diet? In this area, people are given advice ranging from "buck up" or "get it together," to advice to seek professional counseling, to prescriptions for mood-altering drugs. It is now common practice for doctors, in the absence of an obvious physical problem, to evaluate a patient's emotional situation and prescribe antidepressants accordingly.
But could there be another factor overlooked by the majority of Americans? Author Barbara Stitt says yes, and that factor is food.
According to Barbara, the Standard American Diet (SAD diet), loaded with empty calories, overly processed foods sweetened, refined, stripped of nutrients, over-cooked, chemically treated, and devoid of any real nutrition is affecting people's mental health.
Barbara touches on several dietary related issues that affect the brain, the most important organ of the body.
The first issue covered in depth is reactive hypoglycemia, in which the body's blood sugar levels are too low to meet the brain's needs. Although there are other causes of hypoglycemia, the average 129 pounds of sugar per person eaten each year by Americans1 is the main cause of the reactive hypoglycemia that sends blood sugar on a wild roller coaster ride from high to low accompanied with a craving for sweets that starts the cycle all over again if sugary laden foods are eaten. Amazingly, due to the high amount of processed sugar we now eat, as much as 50 percent of all Americans may be hypoglycemic2. The physical and mental results of the hypoglycemic state include: apprehension, trembling, irritability, confusion, amnesia, and hallucinations all symptoms the average psychiatrist would diagnose as neurosis, psychosis or schizophrenia3. There is also a documented link between hypoglycemia and aggressive or violent behavior.
The next startling topic in the book is sub-clinical pellagra a once widespread niacin-deficiency disease in the southern United States with symptoms that include dermatitis, disorientation, confusion, memory lapses, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and ultimately, dementia and death.
While pellagra is thought to have been eliminated, Barbara raises the issue of developing some symptoms of the disease without developing full blown pellagra:
"Although 'enrichment' of many processed foods has guaranteed that few people in this country die of advanced pellagra, doctors are beginning to question whether people have niacin deficiencies which aren't severe enough to cause the more visible symptoms of pellagra. Such a disease is called sub-clinical pellagra."4The startling part of sub-clinical pellagra, like hypoglycemia, is that the symptoms also mirror those of schizophrenia, a problem so widespread that those who suffer from it occupy one out of every four hospital beds in the United States.5
A third topic the author details is vitamin B deficiencies, giving symptoms that could easily be confused with mental disorders. These B vitamins include B1, B2, B6, and B12. B12 deficiencies, for example, are well known for causing mental disturbances, such as paranoia, mental confusion, and dementia. In fact, the included table that compares vitamin B deficiencies to neuropsychiatric disorders is uncanny:
Interestingly enough, Barbara points out that a B-vitamin deficiency can be related to a high sugar intake because, even though sugar contains no nutrients, the body must use stored nutrients to metabolize the sugar into energy. Therefore, meals high in processed foods not only provide little if any nutrition, they compound deficiency-related problems by robbing the body of nutrients in order to convert these non-foods into forms useable by the body.
Other food-related problems covered in some depth in the book as they relate to behavior are: allergic reactions to food; alcohol consumption; the effects of toxic substances such as aluminum, lead, mercury, etc.; man-made chemical additives such as MSG and Nutrasweet; and milk, which is surprisingly high in sugar and causes allergic reactions in a large percentage of the population.
These problems are also related to crime and violence, often with real-life examples pulled from the author's probation files or related studies, with names changed, of course. These case studies help to put a face to the problems. A good example here is the case of a 14-year-old with atrocious eating habits and a penchant for vandalism and burglaries:
"A 14-year-old male observed by Dr. Alex Schauss and Dr. Clifford E. Simonsen vividly illustrates the junk food addiction of many adolescents who get into trouble with the law. This boy had been arrested for vandalism, but it was not his first offense; he had committed two second-degree burglaries in two years. The composite of this young man's diet, which Schauss and Simonsen present, defies belief and turns the stomach. For breakfast he often ate five cups of Sugar Smacks with 1/2 teaspoon added sugar, a glazed donut and 20 ounces of milk. For lunch he ate two hamburgers, french fries, two slices of white bread, 24 ounces of chocolate milk, and topped it off with two foot-long ropes of red licorice; he might even eat a small serving of green beans. Supper consisted of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread, a can of tomato soup and ten ounces of Kool-Aid. Throughout the day he snacked on high-sugar foods, and foods with plenty of preservatives and other additives: more red licorice, three beef jerky sticks, a large bowl of ice cream and a very large candy bar.Overall, Food & Behavior is well worth taking the time to read. If there was any complaint at all with the book, it would be that the diet information is a little sparse. This is nothing too out of the ordinary, however, since the book was not designed to be a cookbook. And any minor complaints, such as Barbara advocating whole-wheat products, when many of these products are only slightly better than white-flour products health-wise, really are minor when you factor in the success she has had with keeping people out of trouble.
Barbara claims more than 80 percent of probationers
who came to her after she started using a food-based treatment were able
to go on to live full, productive lives; and analyzing a twelve year
study, found that not a single individual who stayed with the program
had been back in trouble8. While
there very well may be other issues involved with crime and violence,
it is hard to ignore the results Barbara has had with her program.