Fact File – The Psychiatric Side of These Superfoods

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This blog post is written by a guest contributor, Jenny Travens. You can read more of her work at Superfoods Living.

What are Superfoods?

Superfoods are powerful nutrient-dense ingredients with many health benefits. Superfoods are foods, mostly plant-based but also some fish and dairy products- all thought to be nutritionally dense and healthy. Most nutritionists and dieticians would describe “superfoods” as more of a marketing term for foods that have health benefits. Most scientists do not use the term because although the food itself may be healthful, the processing may not be.

However, as in most things, an educated consumer is going to get the most out of the superfoods he or she buys. There are no worldwide criteria determining what is and what isn’t a superfood. There are as many standards for the term Organic as there are countries importing or producing superfoods, according to the American Heart Association.

The USA has its own standard and almost every producer of superfoods, including China, has its own standard as well. If you don’t read the labels, know where the superfood comes from and how it is produced, you will likely be purchasing a product with fewer benefits than you thought.

What is the relationship of the Brain to Superfoods?

The brain controls everything. It is on call and working whether we are awake or asleep. Everything works better with a healthy brain. In other words, we need to have good mental health.

What are the most important factors affecting mental health? Socio-economics, physical health, and lifestyle all influence mental wellness. So it’s not surprising that food plays an important role in our mental health and well being.

It should be easy to define our daily eating patterns and the choices we make about what we eat. However, some surprising facts present themselves when we begin comparing everyday diets.

People who stick to traditional diets have a 25 to 30% lower chance of depressive spells. A traditional diet, often called a Mediterranean diet, contains more vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and less meat. It is healthier for the brain as well as the body. This makes sense.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said in its latest fact sheet that an estimated 300 million people worldwide are affected by depression. The developing field of nutritional psychiatry is finding more connections between mood and diet. Many are observational but these observations appear across countries, cultures, and age groups. Disorders like dementia, autism, several intellectual disabilities, and other development ailments are on the rise, too. Although an aging population and better-defined disorders may influence this finding, it is possible that a poor diet may contribute substantially to these issues.

Depression and other mental health issues began to be seen as serious concerns a few decades back. Perhaps it is because we relied more on traditional foods and not as much on pick-up foods, not so much on prepared foods. Today, the Internet is flooded with sites on food and how to prepare innovative dishes but few are focused on the mental health benefits of these dishes. I am not saying that creative presentation and preparation isn’t beneficial, but we may be missing the essential elements of healthy food.

Unfortunately, in our eating habits, we tend to be led by advertising, and to focus on flavor, fun, comfort, and ease of preparation more than on our health, mental or physical. Healthy food and recipes are often replaced by popular, easy to prepare, but high calorie, high sugar foods, foods that are missing essential nutrients. One doesn’t have to visit the traditional junk food outlets to find large amounts of sugar, fructose, and other harmful ingredients in everyday meals.

Even as we label a food a superfood, one that offers a strong health advantage, we often don’t focus on its harmful ingredients and their side effects that may be greater than the list of solid benefits.

Let me talk about the link between these well-known superfoods today and mental health. Fatty fish, red wine, and pomegranate juice all fit into the popular idea of superfoods and they can be, but there are a few issues that you should be aware of with each of them

  • Fatty Fish
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Fish is known for its rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which helps in regulating triglyceride levels responsible for cardiovascular diseases and stroke.

Regular consumption of Omega-3 acids lowers depression and stress, benefits bipolar disorders, and boosts the effects of antidepressants. Many medical practitioners often ask their patients to have fatty fish at least once a week.

Medical professionals prefer their patients eat actual fish (like salmon, tuna and sardines) over fish oil supplements because fish are a natural source of Omega-3. Supplements & tablets, however, are suitable for people who are vegan or for those who have allergies to fish. In addition, some fish like mackerel can have dangerously high levels of mercury, PCBs, and other toxins. While pregnant women and children should avoid these completely, other adults shouldn’t consume more than 7 ounces a week.

Depending on where the fish are procured, you can make a decision to purchase or to pass. The discussion about farmed fish or fish caught in the wild is an interesting one and there are pros and cons offered by each viewpoint. Know your purveyor of fresh fish and become knowledgeable about his purchasing practices so that you can make educated decisions about eating either farmed or fish caught in the wild.

  • Red Wine
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Nearly 245 billion liters of alcohol are consumed each year across the world. The consumption of whiskey and other hard drinks has not considerably increased over the years, but it is still a huge number. The love for wine hasn’t waned either. Wine consumption has been holding steady in recent years.

A few years ago, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine released a study that said that Resveratrol, which is found in red wine, increases levels of an enzyme called Heme Oxygenase, now known to shield nerve cells in the brain from damage. The study was encouraging enough for the medical community to do further research, and today, we have countless studies to support the fact that drinking red wine in moderation is beneficial for health.

While drinking red wine has a positive effect on overall health, too much of a good thing could lead to negative health effects. Drinking wine in moderation and pairing it with other healthy foods is generally suggested. Alcohol dependency, depression, weight gain, and liver issues are common side effects when alcohol is consumed in large quantities over a long period. However, drinking in moderation adds enjoyment to our lives, our meals, and perhaps even to our life span.

  • Pomegranate
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Here’s another food known to lessen various disease risk factors. Certain ingredients in pomegranate such as Polyphenols,  have potential antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Polyphenols can help prevent high blood pressure and high cholesterol. They also help with weight loss and detoxification. Pomegranate juice has one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants.

There is a question regarding the benefits of polyphenols for people suffering from high blood pressure. Does it help or harm those with low blood pressure? No one is sure of this interaction. Currently, the relationship of polyphenols with medications is being studied and the hope is that people suffering from low blood pressure will also be helped by these antioxidants.

Excessive intake of pomegranate and its juice (more than 8-12 ounces per day) can lead to gastrointestinal tract issues. While these symptoms are not acute and usually disappear after a few hours, they can be an issue, especially considering that an unhealthy stomach can affect our nervous system and brain. The brain works on gastrointestinal and immune functions that shape the gut’s microbial makeup. Our gastrointestinal health governs our nervous system and the operating functions of the brain.


It’s hard to ignore what’s being said for and against these foods. The intelligent method would be to understand that super foods are there for your enjoyment and should be taken as part of your overall diet. Food is a major supplement and eating an orange or an apricot will aid our nervous system and our body’s health far more than a capsule of Vitamin A or C.

The ideal diet is one that is chiefly plant-based. It should offer a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthful animal products. Superfoods could be a good entry into healthy eating, and understanding the nutritional value what you eat is interesting, but there are lots of healthy foods out there, even if they don’t have the “super” label attached. You can read a complete list here.

An intelligent and rational approach is the answer. This article is not intended to deter anyone from having fish, red wine, or pomegranate juice. Quite the contrary. However, I am suggesting that knowing our sources of healthy fish, drinking wine in moderation, and understanding the benefits of pomegranate juice in the context of a healthy diet will go a long way toward maintaining a healthy lifestyle. A knowledgeable consumer will be a healthy individual as well as a smart shopper.


Jenny Travens from Superfoods Living.


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