Nutritional psychiatrist Felice Jacka: ‘The global food system is the leading cause of premature death’ | Food


FElice Jacka is a leading researcher in nutritional psychiatry, a relatively new field of study that considers the role of diet in brain and mental health. She is also co-director of the Center for Food and Mood at Deakin University, Australia, and president of the International Society for Research in Nutritional Psychiatry. She talked with him Observer about his discoveries about the links between ultra-processed foods and the health of our brain.

We normally think that food has an effect on us from the mouth down. Why study its impact on our brain?
Our gut microbiome affects virtually every aspect of health. It affects our metabolism, our blood glucose, our body weight. It affects the way genes are turned on and off and the amount of serotonin in our brain by altering the way the gut breaks down. tryptophan (of proteins) in our diet. Influences the stress response system. It affects the way mitochondria (which produce energy) in our cells function and profoundly influences our immune system.

So if you start to think about all those things, all of which are very involved in mental and brain health, and that diet is a key factor that affects gut microbes, then you can see why we need to think about what we eat and what we don’t eat in relation to our mental and brain health.

And do ultra-processed foods play a particularly unusual role in this?
It is a question for which science does not yet have all the answers. There is already some research that tells us that when a diet of Western junk food is given to young people who normally eat a fairly healthy diet for a week, we can see that there are impairments in the cognitive functions of the hippocampus (an area of ​​the brain). We and others have shown that people who have a less healthy diet have a smaller hippocampus, and people who have a healthier diet have a larger hippocampus.

A shrunken brain is a terrifying image. How scared should we be?
The hippocampus is the only area of ​​the brain that can grow and shrink. People who suffer from, for example, a major depressive illness, have on average a smaller hippocampus. But when they are no longer depressed, their hippocampus grows again.

So the hippocampus is really important in mental health. We know that in animal studies, if they block the proteins that help the hippocampus grow, antidepressants don’t work. And then, of course, the hippocampus is very important for various aspects of learning and memory. It’s very important for kids in school, for example, while any of us who want to maintain our brain and not have cognitive decline as we get older, we want to do everything we can to keep our hippocampus nice and fat and healthy.

So why do ultra-processed foods damage our brain?
We just did a very interesting study where we tested ultra-processed foods against the whole grain version of a low-calorie diet and looked at the impact on the gut microbiome. What we think is that with ultra-processed foods, even when the package says they have this vitamin, or they have added minerals, or they have enough protein, your brain or your gut microbes don’t process them as food in the same way. (like whole foods). We just need more science to prove this conclusively.

Food manufacturers often claim that ultra-processed foods can be healthy because of their fiber and vitamins. Is that an illusion?
I think the big picture is really critical here. The industrialized food system is the leading cause of disease and premature death worldwide. And it is the main cause of biodiversity loss. The 2021 UN Food Report concluded that our industrialized global food system costs the world approx. 20 billion dollars a year. About $11 trillion of that amount is from impacts on human health, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer. And around 7 billion dollars is the impact on the environment.

So, should we reduce our consumption of ultra-processed foods where we can?
The real problem is that many people don’t necessarily have the option because very often ultra-processed foods are the cheapest. This is a failure of government policy, nothing less than that.

In the UK, just like in Australia, when you go to fill up the gas tank of your car, you see row after row of ultra-processed foods, sugary drinks and every type of crisps, lollies and soft drinks you can imagine. imagine. Because those foods interact very strongly with the brain’s reward systems, if you have them in your face every day when you’re on the main street, in the supermarket, filling up your car with gas, it’s very difficult for people to make decisions. healthy.

He has also explored a connection between ultra-processed foods and neurodevelopmental disorders. What have you found?
In 2021, we look directly in the quality of the diet in mothers and children, and in the symptoms and diagnosis of ADHD. And, in particular, mothers’ intake of healthy and unhealthy foods was independently related to children’s ADHD diagnosis.

That’s not an experiment, it’s just an observation. But it is very consistent with animal studies and with the emerging understanding that the microbes found in mothers’ intestines as the baby grows, and the microbes found in babies’ intestines when they are born, not only influence immune development but also in brain development. development. Because people’s diets in the West are so deteriorated, we believe that, along with exposure to antibiotics and loss of biodiversity from the foods we eat, limits the healthy microbiome in mothers and babies. And that could be part of what’s driving apparent increases in neurodevelopmental disorders, as well as mental health problems.

Some researchers have criticized the term ultra-processed food as being ill-defined, overly broad, and unsuitable for its purpose. Should we reconsider the term?
Food must be the most complex exhibition in the world. It comes in many forms, has many links to culture and emotional health, and serves many different functions. Therefore, it is inevitable that there will be some confusing boundaries and some misclassifications.

But what I also know is that what the industry does, absolutely knowingly, is intervene and confuse people. In the case of cigarettes, smoking has never been categorically shown by a randomized controlled trial to cause lung cancer. How could you randomly assign people to smoke or not and follow them for 40 years? But we know from converging evidence – from animal studies, from epidemiology – that if people stop smoking, their risk decreases.

What the tobacco industry had done for a long time was confuse people by saying that correlation does not equal causation. Now they do exactly the same with food. Think about the billions of dollars generated each year in profits through the industrialized food system, and the power of those industries to get people, including scientists, to muddy the waters. I think a lot of the conversation around new classification (which groups foods according to their level of processing) and whether they are fit for purpose actually comes from the industry.

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