Image of vegetables. Mental illnesses and psychological disorders are frequently caused by eating sugar and junk food.

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Sugar, Junk Food and Mental Illness

How What We Eat Is Changing Who We Are

by Ken Sanes

There is also a brief overview of these ideas

and a longer, more complete essay on this subject:
The Truth About Mental Illness

When I go about the tasks of daily life, I encounter people all the time who are visibly suffering from a range of psychological problems, including anxiety, anger and depression. Their problems clearly inflict emotional suffering on them, and often complicate the lives of people who interact with them.

I also see people consuming large quantities of ice cream, soft drinks, and other junk foods. In fact, I see so much of this kind of addictive eating, it is almost as if society has become a giant feeding center, in which many people now spend their day in a state of oral dependence on recreational foods.

But something needs to be said to the tens of millions of people who now fit this description. Please, stop and think about what you are doing, because there is a connection between the foods you are eating and many of the psychological problems you suffer from. These foods don’t only make people obese, and give them a range of medical conditions, including diabetes and heart disease. They also damage people’s brains, and other aspects of their physical functioning, in ways that cause people to suffer a host of psychological problems, from emotional vulnerability to feeling numb to the world.

Science doesn’t yet understand how most of this works, although the influence that foods have on hormones, and especially on the neurotransmitters in the brain, clearly has a lot to do with it. What seems likely is that the physical changes set in motion by unhealthy food are releasing dysfunctional parts of the brain, which then interfere with who we are in the inner sanctum of ourselves.

In fact, eating an unhealthy diet probably initiates biochemical changes that activate the “Freudian” unconscious, so we end up reenacting the real and imagined problems of childhood in our adult lives. That means Freud was half right after all -- the unconscious is real and it is a source of all kinds of problems, but only if we make ourselves vulnerable by having an apple pie dessert after a fast food lunch.

It also means that conventional psychotherapy can only help many people to a limited degree, no matter how much insight, motivation and bonding with the therapist it provides. In fact, we have a situation in which people are being made sick by an addiction to unhealthy food and are then trying to cure themselves with psychotherapy, pharmaceutical drugs, meditation, motivational-self-help approaches and other means. All may do some good. But what will really alleviate many people's psychological suffering is adopting healthier diets with less sugar and calories, and making other changes such as exercising and losing weight. They will then find that their psychological symptoms are greatly improved, as the quality of their experience gets richer and they begin to deal with life’s problems more effectively. They will still have the potential for psychological problems in the brain, but the problems will no longer be active. 

Unfortunately we don’t have any way to know right now how many people this will help. There are certainly also a lot of people who have something wrong with the brain and body that can’t be fixed by eating healthier food or adopting other good habits.

One of the things we do know is that many of the foods being sold today are doing profound harm to people’s health. For example, largely as a result of unhealthy food it is estimated that, as of 2008, almost 1.5 billion adults in the world were overweight, and another half billion were obese. In America, about one in three children are now overweight or obese.

The source of the problem is also clear: the marketplace is driving food companies to manufacture and market addictive foods, packed with sweeteners, salt and fat, and refined carbs, and often filled with calories. After all, that’s the way to maximize profits. And if one company doesn’t do it, others will, and they will then dominate the market.

The former head of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. David Kessler, provides crucial insights into how this works in his book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. He says that food manufacturers and chain restaurants have become expert at stimulating our brains with food products full of sugar, fat, and salt, to create a state of “conditioned hypereating” in which we keep seeking more because it is rewarding.

“Chronic exposure to highly palatable foods changes our brains, conditioning us to seek continued stimulation. Over time, a powerful drive for a combination of sugar, fat, and salt competes with our conscious capacity to say no,” Kessler writes.

The end result is that a lot of people are now addicted to unhealthy foods, while they lead sedentary lives “consuming” what is on electronic screens, which all too frequently try to sell them these same foods. Other addictions -- to alcohol and many kinds of drugs -- are damaging people psychologically, as well.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that all of this unhealthy food is literally changing the character of America and other countries. It is making people sick, taking away their edge, and undoubtedly contributing to the growing climate of incivility in America.

So if President Obama is looking for a signature issue that will make America and the world a better place, here it is. First Lady Michelle Obama has already made fighting childhood obesity a signature issue for herself, with an excellent campaign called “Let’s Move!” And the president has created a task force, also on combating childhood obesity. But it’s going to take a lot to fight this problem, in both children and adults.

We now need the president -- and leaders in many fields -- to put this issue before the public, with a national education campaign that involves schools, doctors and the media. We need doctors throughout the country to post information on food addiction and its consequences in visible locations, such as waiting rooms, and to fully alert their patients to these issues.

And we need easy-to-read warning labels on that package of Twinkies and that giant bag of potato chips, letting people know that these foods are potentially injurious or addictive, along with strong new restrictions on food advertising to children.

What would not be acceptable in America is laws that interfere with people’s right to eat and buy what they choose. That means no “fat” taxes on unhealthy foods to discourage their purchase, which would put a financial burden primarily on people with limited incomes. Banning foods isn’t a good solution for America either, since this would put government in the position of telling people what they can eat.

One obvious exception involves dangerous ingredients that can easily be replaced. For example, we need tough laws worldwide against the trans-fats used in fast foods and processed foods.

Ultimately, the kind of societies many of us live in, filled with the marketing of addictive foods, will need to change, if we want to protect humanity from more obesity, diabetes, and heart disease -- and from the psychological illnesses that sugar and addictive marketing are now causing. The food companies that adapt to these changes and offer healthier fare will be the ones in the best position to prosper. And the countries that are willing to put the brakes on addictive marketing will have a big advantage over those that don’t, both in their productivity and in the quality of the lives of their people.

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The longer essay:
The Truth About Mental Illness: How Knowing About the Hidden Connection Between Food and the Unconscious Could Set You Free 

External links:
The Hypoglycemic Health Association of Australia
Mental disorders, from Wikipedia
Mental illness at NAMI
Understanding Mental Illness
Mental Illness
Mental Illness described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Mental illness described by 

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The purpose of this essay is to provide information, and help point to a new direction for medicine, psychotherapy and our understanding of mind and body. This essay doesn’t provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, nor does it substitute for help from qualified doctors and other health care professionals. The writer also isn't a health care professional or psychotherapist of any kind. If you need professional attention, or if your health or safety may be in danger, you should contact the appropriate professionals without delay. You should also consult health care providers and other appropriate professionals before taking a course of action that could affect your health, and be aware that actions affecting health can have unforeseen and undesirable consequences.
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Image by Alastair Thompson from Somerville (Harvest Uploaded by Leyo) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. / What's Being Said About Transparency

Copyright 1996-2012 Ken Sanes
On file with the U.S. Copyright Office

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