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...

After talking about Lewis’s ideas for providing omega-3s to protect soldiers’ brains from traumatic injury, Hibbeln reveals his grandest plan, one that applies all his research toward helping people in the “real world.” Hibbeln wants to create what he calls a modern-day “Diet of Evolution.” He is designing this diet—which he plans to someday introduce into the Naval hospital’s cafeteria—to boost the ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s in the brain, not so much by increasing omega-3s but rather by dramatically reducing omega-6 fats—from about 10 percent to 1 percent of total calories. (On 2,000 calories a day, that’s 2 to 2.5 grams versus the 17 to 20 that a typical Western diet delivers.)

For years, Hibbeln and others have advocated eating lots of omega-3-rich fish to restore the omega balance in the brain. But they haven’t lost sight of the fact that animal studies suggest slashing the omega-6s may work just as well. “We don’t need to increase the world’s fisheries production tenfold to achieve the same goal,” says Hibbeln. Eating a traditional Mediterranean-style diet that’s centered on vegetables and fruits, legumes and olive oil, provides plenty of seafood and is limited in meat, will help to lower omega-6 intake dramatically, says Hibbeln. (Vegetables, fruits, legumes and olive oil don’t contain significant amounts of omega-6s or omega-3s; seafood provides plenty of omega-3s; and meat tends to deliver more 6s than 3s. The diet as a whole is low in omega-6-rich processed foods. But overhauling an institutional menu is expensive, he says, “so the question is how do we make the same menus, backing off the omega-6 fatty acids?”

Answer: Replace the inexpensive high-omega-6 oils the military currently uses, such as soybean oil, with lower-omega-6 oils, such as high-oleic safflower and high-oleic sunflower oil (which have been bred or engineered to have more monounsaturated fats and fewer omega-6s).

If Hibbeln can show that balancing the omega-3/omega-6 equation in the medical center cafeteria can reduce risks of depression and suicide, it might convince the entire military to switch to lower-omega-6 oils (which cost a little more than, say, soy oil, but far less than the expense of changing the entire military diet). This could open the door to wider-reaching changes—like commercial product reformulations. Hibbeln is already preparing for that. His research team is figuring out how many omega-3s and omega-6s are in foods on supermarket shelves: Different brands of salad dressings. Mayo. Peanut butter. Chicken. Pork. “Pretty much everything,” says Hibbeln.

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