Book review by Irena Karshenbaum
(AJNews) – People have known for centuries that good nutrition positively correlates to good mental health, but its significance has been overlooked in the past 60 years.
Scientist, medical researcher, and Calgarian, Dr. Bonnie J. Kaplan has dedicated her career to researching, writing and talking about the importance of micronutrients on mental health and has recently written a book on the subject, The Better Brain, with her former student, Julia J. Rucklidge. The book is an achievement in itself and a sort of vindication for Kaplan who saw her career derailed in its early years for her ideas and witnessed young scientists leave the field because they were unable to obtain funding for their research work.
Written for the general reader, The Better Brain found a home with a major US publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in New York. It argues through countless stories and references to studies that a diet of real, nutritious — not ultra-processed — food is the foundation for one’s mental health.
Mental illness has been growing exponentially. Researchers Dr. E. Fuller Torrey and Judy Miller in a book called The Invisible Plague (2001), found that mental disorders were 1 in 10,000 prior to 1750 and tripled to 3 in 10,000 between 1750 and 1960. Currently, the World Health Organization estimates the rate at over 2,000 in 10,000. Over a lifetime, the CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates the rate at 5,000 in 10,000, every other person will suffer from a mental illness in their life.
The book does acknowledge the roots of mental disorders — listed as anxiety disorders, depression, mood disorders, personality disorders like narcissism, psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and medication-induced movement disorders — are varied and complex, but it asks the reader to look at diet first. Eating nutritious, real, whole foods, the kind your grandparents ate and that are rich with micronutrients, in other words vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, is what your brain needs to function optimally.
The scientists write that the brain hungers for a variety of micronutrients — there are about 30 of them ranging from B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, magnesium, iodine, etc. — that it needs. It is this idea that is still seen as controversial and proving to be a barrier to receiving research funding with granting agencies stating that if they would only study a single micronutrient, then funding could be available. The scientists argue that when it comes to the brain there is no “magic bullet” and that the brain is not like, for example, scurvy that can be cured with a single vitamin, vitamin C. The brain needs a broad spectrum of micronutrients that are vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, like omega-3. These micronutrients are found in real foods like fruits and vegetables of all colours of the rainbow, plain yoghurt, fish, chicken, meat, nuts with an emphasis that the best source of this good food is the Mediterranean-style diet. In contrast, the Western diet consisting of ultra-processed food is full of macronutrients like proteins, carbs, saturated fats and sodium but lacks micronutrients that the brain hungers for.
The Better Brain contains an entire chapter on helpful tips on how to shop for healthy food (and that it’s actually cheaper than ultra-processed food) and recipes for healthy breakfasts, soups, salads, main courses and even desserts. Another chapter delves into what not to eat, which is pretty self-explanatory, like pop, sugar and ultra-processed food. They write, “It’s not just the presence of healthy food but also the absence of unhealthy food that contributes to a good outcome.”
The scientists state that it is best to get your essential nutrients from whole foods, but if mental health issues persist to consider adding nutritional supplements. An entire chapter is dedicated to this topic. They write, “All the minerals and vitamins are needed for your enzymes to allow for proper brain function. Some people have inherited “sluggish pathways” because their enzymes are not efficient, resulting in the need to flood their brains with even more micronutrients than usual.” In plain English, the scientists are saying that many people with mental illnesses have brains that have been starved of essential micronutrients or their particular biochemical makeup is preventing them from absorbing the micronutrients efficiently and in such instances they need large doses of micronutrients that can only be obtained through taking supplements. These supplements are not store-bought brands that contain doses too small to make a difference, but are from supplement companies, which they list in the book. Kaplan and Rucklidge consistently state they do not have financial ties to any supplement companies.
The scientist advises, “It is absolutely crucial that you do not stop taking meds for your psychiatric condition. We suggest you discuss options with your prescribing physician first.”
Born in Canton, Ohio, and educated at the University of Chicago, Brandeis University and completing postdoctoral training and then faculty research in neurophysiology at Yale University, Kaplan moved to Calgary with husband, Richard, in 1979.
She explains that she spent most of her career in research and supervising students and did not do a lot of regular classroom teaching. As she was going into retirement in 2016, Kaplan was considering what she would do next. “I came up with two things. I wanted to help fund research by my junior colleagues on treating mental health with micronutrients in studies in Canada, US and New Zealand.” To date, she has raised almost $900,000 for her charitable funds, one of which is held with the Calgary Foundation. “My second focus was knowledge translation to the public. This is why I decided I had a book in me that needed to be written.”
Kaplan continues, “I saw that the public doesn’t know bubkes about this subject, yet nutrition plays a key part in mental health.”
Kaplan is seeing a complete turnaround from the opposition she experienced in her early career to now when she is receiving numerous speaking invitations in Alberta and across Canada. “I am doing a webinar where they have over 1,000 registrations, which is very unusual for them. When previously the interest for this topic was in Western Europe and the US.”
After selling the idea to the publisher, Kaplan and co-author, Julia J. Rucklidge, who is in the midst of her career working at the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, New Zealand, wrote the book in just four months. Aided by technology they are now busy doing podcasts and interviews. Kaplan speaks of one recent podcast where she was in Calgary, Julia was in New Zealand, and other speakers were in New York, Arizona and North Carolina.
She says the book is receiving a lot of good feedback from people reading advance copies. “The medical system is a longer road. It would be advantageous in mental health clinics to teach a class on nutrition and Mediterranean-style cooking.”
Kaplan says she and her husband rarely eat out. “We cook from scratch and eat a Mediterranean-style diet. Before the pandemic, we were eating out only as a social thing to meet with friends.”
Kaplan stresses the importance of learning to cook, but also to follow the 80/20 rule. “If you’re eating a healthy diet 80 percent of the time, don’t beat yourself up if you’re eating a cookie that is not so healthy.”
The Better Brain, by Bonnie J. Kaplan, PhD and Julia J. Rucklidge, PhD was released in April 2021 by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. For information visit https://bonniejkaplan.com and https://thebetterbrainbook.com.
Irena Karshenbaum writes in Calgary irenakarshenbaum.com.