By IRENA KARSHENBAUM What people have known for centuries - that good nutrition is positively correlated to good mental health has, in the last 60 years, been largely abandoned as a precept within Western society. Instead, it’s become standard belief that mental illness can only be helped through prescription medication.
As a result, something as basic as good nutrition is not only overlooked as being key to mental health, it’s regarded as somewhat controversial.
Scientist, medical researcher, and Calgarian, Dr. Bonnie J. Kaplan has dedicated her career to researching, writing and talking about the importance of micronutrients in mental health. Now, while being semi-retired, she has written a book titled “The Better Brain”, along with her former student, Dr. Julia J. Rucklidge. The book is an achievement in itself and a sort of vindication for Kaplan, who says that her career was derailed in its early years because of her ideas, and who witnessed young scientists leaving the field because they were unable to obtain funding for their research work.
Born in Canton, Ohio, and educated at the University of Chicago and Brandeis University, with postdoctoral training and faculty research in neurophysiology at Yale University, Kaplan moved to Calgary with her husband, Richard, in 1979.
She explains that she spent most of her career in research and supervising students, and did not do a lot of regular classroom teaching. As she was going into retirement in 2016, Kaplan was considering what she would do next.
“I came up with two things,” she says. “I wanted to raise funds for my two charitable funds to help fund research by my junior colleagues on treating mental health with micronutrients in studies in Canada, US and New
Zealand.” (To date, Kaplan says, she has raised almost $900,000 for her charitable funds, one of which is held with the Calgary Foundation.)
“My second focus was knowledge translation to the public” she says. “This is why I decided to write this book.”
Written for the general reader, “The Better Brain” found a home with a major US publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in New York. Through stories and references to studies Kaplan argues that a diet of real, nutritious — not ultra-processed — food is the foundation for one’s mental health.
Mental illness has been growing exponentially. Researchers Dr. E. Fuller Torrey and Judy Miller in a book called “The Invisible Plague: The Rise of Mental Illness from 1750 to the Present” (published in 2001 by Rutgers University Press), suggested that mental disorders occurred at a rate of three in 10,000 between 1750 and 1960. The World Health Organization currently estimates the rate at over 2,000 in 10,000.
“The Better Brain” does acknowledge that the roots of mental disorders — listed as anxiety disorders, depression, mood disorders, personality disorders like narcissism, psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, neurodevelopmental disorders like autism, and medication-induced movement disorders — are varied and complex, but Kaplan and Rucklidge ask the reader to consider diet as a primary cause for mental disorders. Eating nutritious, whole foods that are rich with micronutrients - in other words, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, is what your brain needs to function optimally, they argue
Kaplan and Rucklidge write that the brain hungers for a variety of micronutrients; there are about 30 of them, ranging from Vitamins B and D, calcium, zinc, magnesium, iodine, and others. However, promoting the notion that mental health is linked to diet is still seen as controversial, Kaplan admits.
As well, advancing that notion had proven to be a barrier to her receiving research funding, with granting agencies telling her that if she would only confine her studies to a single micronutrient, then funding could be available.
Kaplan and Rucklidge argue, however, that when it comes to the brain there is no “magic bullet” and that the brain is not akin to, for example, a disease such as scurvy, which can be cured with a single vitamin: Vitamin C. The brain needs a broad spectrum of micronutrients - vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, like Omega-3. These micronutrients are found in real unprocessed foods, such as fruits and vegetables of all colours of the rainbow, plain yogurt, fish, chicken, meat, and nuts. The best source of good food can be found in a Mediterranean diet, the authors write. In contrast, a Western diet consisting of ultra-processed food is full of macronutrients like proteins, carbs, saturated fats and sodium, but lacks micronutrients, for which the brain hungers.
“The Better Brain” contains an entire chapter of helpful tips on how to shop for healthy food (which is actually cheaper than ultra-processed food, Kaplan and Rucklidge maintain) and recipes for healthy breakfasts, soups, salads, main courses and even desserts. Another chapter delves into what not to eat which, not surprisingly, includes suchg things as pop, sugar and ultra-processed food. The book says: “It’s not just the presence of healthy food but also the absence of unhealthy food that contributes to a good outcome.”
Kaplan and Rucklidge suggest that it is best to get your essential nutrients from whole foods, but if mental health issues persist, you ought to consider adding nutritional supplements. An entire chapter is dedicated to this topic.
The book says: “All the minerals and vitamins are needed for your enzymes to allow for proper brain function. Some people have inherited ‘sluggish pathways’ because their enzymes are not efficient, resulting in the need to flood their brains with even more micronutrients than usual.”
In plain English, the scientists are saying that many people with mental illnesses have brains that have been starved of essential micronutrients or their particular biochemical makeup is preventing them from absorbing the micronutrients efficiently and in such instances they need large doses of micronutrients that can only be obtained through taking supplements. These supplements are not store-bought brands that contain doses too small to make a difference, but are from supplement companies, which they list in the book. Kaplan and Rucklidge consistently state they do not have financial ties to any supplement companies.
It must be noted that the authors also make clear that they are not advising individuals to go off their meds: “It is absolutely crucial that you do not stop taking meds for your psychiatric condition. We suggest you discuss options with your prescribing physician first.”
Kaplan is seeing a complete turnaround from the opposition she experienced in her early career to the poin twhere she now receives numerous speaking invitations in Alberta and across Canada. “I am doing a webinar in Alberta that has over 1,000 registrations,” she says, “something very unusual for the organizers of the webinar. “Previously the interest for this topic was largely in Western Europe and the US.”
Co-author Julia J. Rucklidge is currently at the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, New Zealand. Together the two women - after selling the idea to their publisher, wrote the book in just four months. Now, aided by modern technology, they are currently busy doing podcasts and interviews all over the world.
Kaplan says the book is receiving a lot of good feedback from people who have read it. “The medical system is a longer road. It would be advantageous in mental health clinics to teach a class on nutrition and Mediterranean-style cooking.”
She notes that she and her husband rarely eat out. “We cook from scratch and eat a Mediterranean-style diet. Before the pandemic, we were eating out only as a social thing to meet with friends.”
Kaplan stresses the importance of learning to cook, but also to follow the 80/20 rule. “If you’re eating a healthy diet 80 percent of the time, don’t beat yourself up if you’re eating a cookie that is not so healthy.”
“The Better Brain”
By Bonnie J. Kaplan, PhD
and Julia J. Rucklidge, PhD
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Released April, 2021
Irena Karshenbaum writes in Calgary.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own.