Food industry urged to address mental health crisis

Friday, 19 May, 2023

Food industry urged to address mental health crisis

A recently published paper focusing on the importance of food systems for brain health has argued that today’s global food environments and systems are dominated by the corporate-industrial food industry that is undermining ‘brain capital’.

Brain capital is the collective intelligence, talents and expertise of people that can be used for problem-solving, innovation and learning. It highlights the importance of education, skill-building, mental health and intellectual capacity in achieving progress and success.

Researchers from Deakin’s Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Translation (IMPACT) are working to introduce the idea of brain capital across diverse fields, including the food industry.

Felice Jacka, Alfred Deakin Professor and Co-Director of Deakin’s Food & Mood Centre, said the increase in inexpensive, convenient and heavily marketed ultra-processed foods on supermarket shelves is having a devastating impact on the health of our brains, bodies and the planet.

According to Jacka, ultra-processed food and Western dietary patterns can lead to the risk of developing mental disorders through their influence on various pathways, such as inflammation, oxidative stress, reduction in brain adaptiveness and by disrupting the microbiota-gut-brain axis.

The paper outlines the way these unhealthy diets impact mental and brain health, both of which are significant global health concerns.

According to Michael Berk, Alfred Deakin Professor and Director of IMPACT, the most impactful solutions to build brain capital at scale lie in public policy, including diet- and health-related strategies, recommendations and guidelines.

“There needs to be a transformation of global food systems through public policy, reforming clinical care and defending against misinformation driven by the food industry,” Berk said.

Recommendations include:

  • Targeting ultra-processed foods in dietary guidelines and policies.
  • Restrictions on advertising junk food, especially to kids.
  • Developing food assistance programs to promote diets rich in unprocessed or minimally processed whole foods.
  • Requiring front-of-package labelling that warns against the health implications of ultra-processed foods available in public institutions.
  • Implementing zoning to limit the number of fast-food outlets near medical and educational institutions.
  • Policies to improve biodiversity and soil health by large-scale promotion and adoption of regenerative farming techniques.

Harris Eyre, Fellow in Brain Health at the Baker Institute and Adjunct Associate Professor with IMPACT, said it is important for public health messaging and conversation to emphasise the impact of food on brain health.

“This type of messaging has been shown to lead to changes in dietary habits, even in challenging populations like young men,” Eyre said.

“Shifting the focus of historic (and ineffective) diet-related policies and recommendations from weight reduction to improving mental, brain and gut health by increasing diet quality may result in better food choices, especially when cost savings are highlighted,” he said.

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