In a report published today entitled Feeding Minds, The Mental Health Foundation and the Sustain alliance for better farming and food looked at around 500 peer-reviewed studies related to nutrition and mental health, conducted a national opinion poll concerning food consumption and perception and mental health history, and spoke with a number of experts in the mental health and nutrition areas.
They found that changes in the way food is produced have reduced the amounts of essential fats, vitamins and minerals consumed, and have altered the balance of nutrients in foods.
In particular, the use of pesticides and changes to the diets of animals has altered their body fat composition, meaning that the population's intake of omega-3 has declined but omega-6 has increased.
This, the charities say, combined with a general lack of vitamins and minerals, can leave people more open to depression, concentration and memory problems. Moreover amino acids, which make up neurotransmitters in the brain, are vital to good mental health. Many of these must be derived from the diet, and a deficiency can lead to depression, apathy and an inability to relax.
Researcher Courtney Van de Weyer said that although the diet for a healthy mind is the same as that required for a healthy body, food and farming policies - especially on fish - need to change in order to safeguard the future of the UK's healthy food supply.
What is more, the UK population has veered away from fresh produce, replacing fruit and veg with not-so-healthy alternatives like ready meals and take-away. These contain new substances like additives, pesticides and trans fats which, either alone or in combination, are said to impede the proper functioning of the brain.
The trend towards unhealthier eating appears to be particularly prevalent in the younger generation, and it does not bode well for the future: the NOP showed that only 29 percent of 15 to 24 year olds report eating a meal prepared from scratch each day, compared to 50 percent of over-65s.
According to the report mental health costs the UK almost £100 billion (€75 billion) a year.
The two charities sent advance copies of the report to a number of government agencies, including the Department of Health, and are in the process of setting up meetings to discuss it with them in detail.
Celia Richardson, director of communications for The Mental Health Foundation, was unable to tell NutraIngredients.com how much the mental health bill might be reduced by the government altering its policy. But she did say that prescriptions for anti-depressants in England have increased by 2000 percent in the last 12 years.
Richardson said that it is especially hoped that Patricia Hewitt, secretary of state for health, will take note of the report since mental health has a big knock-on effect on other areas of health.
The report has also been circulated to the Department for Education and Skills since it contains information on the importance of nutrition for children's learning ability; the Home Office because of recommendations for prison facilities to do with the effect of fish oils on antisocial behaviour of young offenders; and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport concerning the marketing of unhealthy food to children.
Richardson said that, in particular, studies looking at the supplementation of antidepressants with the amino acid tryptophan have made people sit up and think about nutrition.
There has also been some interesting research on the link between folic acid and depression. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2004 found plasma folate concentrations to be associated with depressive symptoms in elderly Latina women, despite folic acid fortification (Ramos et al, 2004 Oct;80(4):1024-8).
"A lot more research is needed," said Richardson.
The complete report can be accessed at The Mental Health Foundation's website.