New Science Links Food and Happiness

By Rachael Moeller Gorman, "Captain of the Happier Meal," May/June 2010

Joe Hibbeln, M.D., believes our diet is making us depressed, addicted and violent. He thinks he’s found a simple solution.

"I believe in Joe Hibbeln 's work, it should be actively promoted. A UK study by Nick Fisher of the effects of a one- month high Omega-3 diet on a prison population showed mood improvement. The charismatic wit and humour of both Nick and...

What if he’s wrong?

Near the end of our long day together, Hibbeln’s conviction of the extreme importance of his work had not waned. After saying good-bye to Lewis and ending up in another of Hibbeln’s several offices, this one at the NIH main campus, I asked: What would it take for him to discard his theory that a lack of omega-3s causes mental illness? He sat quietly for a few seconds, then said steadily, “I could ask Jeremy [the student sitting with us] to find all of the published scientific studies on omega-3s in humans—I think the total is somewhere between three and four thousand. So you’re asking me to override the published data on several thousand studies?”

But, I say, most of the studies are not gold-standard randomized controlled trials (and they’re not all in psychiatric illness; many are in cardiovascular disease).

“You have to take every piece of science for what it’s worth,” he says.

OK—but there are quite a few pieces of science, and researchers, who don’t support Hibbeln’s theories. Critics argue that Hibbeln’s initial observational studies simply show associations and note there could be plenty of other reasons why—besides high fish consumption. For example, people in Japan seem less prone to depression than those in the United States. They also argue that the clinical science is equivocal: of the handful of controlled trials examining the effects of omega-3s on people with major depression, the most well-studied of these psychiatric illnesses, only about half suggest they help. In studies of people with milder depression, omega-3 supplementation has worked even less well. The same is true for mentally healthy people, though there have been even fewer studies.

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