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...

Peter Rogers, Ph.D., an experimental psychologist who specializes in food and nutrition at the University of Bristol in the UK, is one of the skeptics. “I was very excited by this field, when I read the very first studies nearly 10 years ago now,” says Rogers. “But the more I’ve been involved in this, the less I’m convinced about the impact” of omega-3s on mental illness. In a 2008 study, Rogers found omega-3 supplements did not improve the moods of people with mild to moderate depression. Rogers also reviewed hundreds of studies on omega-3s and various mental conditions, including depression, anxiety, aggression, ADHD and schizophrenia. That paper, published in Nutrition Research Reviews in 2008, concluded that, while early observational studies were promising, clinical trials have produced inconsistent and inconclusive results overall; much more evidence is needed to recommend omega-3 fats as a way to boost mental health.

Hibbeln waves all this off, acknowledging that the field is still young. What’s important, he says, is finding the conditions under which omega-3s do work. Michel Lucas, Ph.D., M.P.H., a research fellow in the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, agrees. “Even antidepressant drugs do not work for everybody,” says Lucas, who thinks that, for people with mild to moderate depression, omega-3s might work about as well as antidepressants. Hibbeln, Lucas and Rogers all see the same data but come to different conclusions. Hibbeln’s are the rosiest.

We get back into Hibbeln’s Mazda, which has an ichthys (one of those religious fish tags) on the back—only this one says “sushi”—and drive back to my rental car. Hibbeln draws me a shortcut on my notepad—while driving—so that I can avoid D.C. rush-hour traffic and make my flight. We talk about his hobbies: serving as Cub Scout master, taking his school-age kids to historic presidential homes on vacation, cooking in his open-fire brick oven.

As we circle the garage looking for my car, he starts speaking almost out of nowhere, as if in response to the naysayers I would talk to later. “I think my role is not to provide definitive answers, although I do that on some level,” he says, a bit more subdued than he’d been earlier. “My bigger contribution has been to ask the best questions. Open up new fields for inquiry. I’m a psychiatrist. If I only practice medicine, I can only affect hundreds, maybe thousands, of people. But if I do research that shifts the paradigm of treatment, I can create useful therapies that could impact millions.”

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