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Dietary fats can affect your mental health


About the author: Jill H. Stout works with people who have physical and developmental disabilities. She is an Indianapolis native who now lives in North Carolina. Contact her at


Most of us are aware that we must eat a healthy diet to maintain good physical health throughout our lives. But how does our diet affect our mental health? I hope this blog will help you cope with the changes.

I have bipolar disorder and was diagnosed with kidney disease nearly four years ago. My nephrologist told me that the best way to treat it would be to lose weight. So I began to research good diet habits through the My DaVita Kidney Care website (

Anyone who has dieted at all in their lifetime probably remembers that a healthy adult diet consists of 40% carbohydrates, 40% protein, and 20% fats (some sources split the percentages as 40-30-30). Some medical conditions require you to adjust individual nutrients.

A kidney diet should be lower in protein, approximately 6 ounces per day. I have lost 50 pounds and changed my eating habits for life. And I wasn’t new to dietary concerns: Between 2002 and 2014, I led a support group for people with mental health problems, and because my bipolar illness also responded badly to my “jones” for sweets, I tried to learn as much as I could about how diet contributed to mental health and other illnesses.

But how do dietary fats affect mental health? Here’s some basic information about fats, from the Mayo Clinic. There are two main types of “bad” fats: saturated fats, which come predominantly from animal sources and can raise your total cholesterol; and trans fats, which occur in animals and mostly are made during the processing of food by partial hydrogenation (making more solid) of unsaturated fats (the better kind of fats). Saturated fats and trans fats are usually solid at room temperature, like shortening, stick margarine, butter, beef fat, and pork fat.

There are also two main types of “good” fats, those that are healthy for you. They are monounsaturated fats or fatty acids, which are found in a variety of foods and oils and aroften referred to as MUFAs. They improve cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease, and may help with type 2 diabetes control. The other type is polyunsaturated fats or fatty acids, which are found chiefly in plant-based foods and oils. Called PUFAs, they protect against heart disease, heart arrhythmia, high cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. Foods made of mostly MUFAs and PUFAs are liquid at room temperature and include olive oil, corn oil, peanut oil, soybean oil, canola oil, and safflower oil.

Fats are very important to brain function. According to the Mayo Clinic, fatty acids cannot be made by the body itself; they must come from your diet. Fats help the body absorb vitamin A (protects eye health, skin, and hair), vitamin D (helps your body

absorb calcium for good bones) and vitamin E (boosts the immune system). These vitamins are fat soluble, and your body must have good fats to be able to process and use them.

Fats such as Omega-3 fatty acids help prevent inflammation from disease, and lipids, a fat-like substance which helps make both good and bad cholesterol, are involved in the structure and functions of nerve cells (neurons), as well as helping the body make hormones. In fact, they constitute, with proteins and carbohydrates, the chief structural components of all living cells.

Much research has indicated that weight-management programs for those with mental illness are effective, but according to Bremner et al. (2020), more research is needed to determine how best to reconcile diet interventions with conventional treatments of the dysfunctional cognitive, social, and personal coping skills often seen in mentally ill persons.

The biggest problem seems to be training these people in how to recognize and consume healthy fats as part of their regular daily diets. Mental illness is associated with a chronic minimal systemic inflammatory response which affects the brain structure and function and reduces gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, which manages impulse control, emotional reactions, planning, and balancing complex behaviors, and the hippocampus, which is an evaluation center associated with learning and memory, behavioral inhibition, and spatial orientation and navigation, reported by National Institutes of Health.

There appears to be in much research showing a link between diets low in saturated and trans fats and high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats including Omega-3 fats and reduced risk for both obesity and some stress-related psychiatric disorders, as well as mild dementia, early Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and even in some cases, epilepsy. Many studies suggest that nutritional medicine would be a good adjunct in the treatment of behavioral disorders including suicide risk and psychotic disorders.

Healthy fats help build and maintain the brain structures needed to decrease negative health behaviors and inflammation: poor sleep patterns, inactivity, vitamin D deficiency, poor diet choices. Psychiatrists and psychologists should recommend balanced diets for their clients. You can help yourself maintain good physical and mental health by recognizing and eating these healthy fats.

Please visit your physician or a nutritionist/dietician if you feel you need a diet tailored to your needs.


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