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Omega-3, bilberries, and depression

February 16, 2011

I live in what is considered the urban jungle–a great and thriving American metropolis. We are conveniently located to everything that we could possibly need–like entertainment, schools, and a wide array of food stores and restaurants. Whether you live in a large city like mine or a small town, if you look around you will probably be surprised at just how many of the stores and shops in your town sell some sort of food product. And while access to all of this food has many benefits, it also has its drawbacks. I am within a walk or a drive of a plethora of foods that are loaded with hydrogenated fats, sugar, and additives. In fact, when I drive around my neighborhood I find that the foods that are convenient and readily available are overwhelmingly foods such as ice cream, fast food, bagels, and sugar filled coffee drinks. When I think about how prevalent these foods are, it’s no wonder that America, and nations like ours, suffer from some of the highest rates of depression in the world.

In point of fact, according the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is both the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15-44 and the leading cause of disability worldwide among persons five and older. Further, according to Ronald C. Kessler, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and principal investigator on a world wide study on depression for the WHO, Americans top the list as suffering from the most depression, at 9.6% of the population.

This leads me to this book. The basic premise of The Jungle Effect is that there are places in this world that are considered “cold spots”: places or communities where there are an unusually low number of people suffering from a particular disease. The author, Daphne Miller, is a board-certified family physician, professor, and educated at no less then Brown University and Harvard Medical School. She examines the role that diet has played in decreasing these diseases in various parts of the world.

Okay, so you can imagine that I am whole-hog into this book. It fits with one of my primary philosophies of life–you feel what you eat. But what I loved most about this book is that she not only addresses medical issues such as diabetes and cancer, but also addresses the issue of depression.

Miller found that a cold spot for depression is Iceland. Of all places in the world, Iceland, where there is no sun for half the year and then constant sun for the other, has the lowest rates of depression in the world. The reason? Diet. Specifically fish, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Icelanders consume more fish then almost any other population; even more than the Japanese. Study after study looking at the mental health and diet of Icelanders shows a strong connection between their diet and the low incidence of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and depression. This research is strongly supported by studies in the United States which also show that Omega-3 fatty acids are a critical element in reducing inflammation which can cause depression and other illnesses.

In the case of Icelanders omega-3s are only one part of the trifecta for reducing or eliminating depression. They also eat a large amount of bilberries, which are high in antioxidants and they don’t consume many simple carbohydrates.

Thankfully Miller doesn’t suggest that we need to eat a diet identical to Icelanders. I mean, that would involve eating sheep brain that has been cooked in the skull. Not only could that prove difficult to locate in my local supermarket, but I’m pretty sure my kids would run screaming from the dinner table! What Miller does suggest is that we adopt a diet high in omega-3s and antioxidants, and low in carbs.

Another great aspect of this book is that Miller helps the reader understand how they can put these ideas into action.To be sure, most people know that what they put into their bodies matters. But most don’t understand exactly why or how the foods they eat impact their health–especially when it comes to their mental health. Even harder is sifting through all the research and media hype and applying that to our everyday food decisions–like what to make for dinner. This book provides some useful insight and direction for the average person looking to make healthy changes in their diet. For example, the end of the book provides a shopping list and recipe suggestions for people looking to incorporate many of these disease fighting foods into their every day diets.

For fighting depression, here are a few of the top picks.

Fish and Potato Mash

1 lb. white fish (such as cod or sole)

1 lb. waxy potatoes with skin on (such as fingerling), cut into 1 – 2 inch chunks

1 cup warm milk

1 tbsp butter or cream

Salt and pepper to taste

Chives or parsley for garnish

Cook fish for 3 – 5 minutes in a pot of boiling water until the fish becomes flaky. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain. Flake with a fork, making sure to remove any bones.

Meanwhile cook potatoes in same boiling water until soft, about 20 minutes. Drain water from potatoes. Add flaked fish, milk, and butter or cream and mash. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot scooped over Sweet and Sour Cabbage. Top with chives or parsley.

Fish cake variation

Take a 1/2 cup scoop of the hash, flatten into the shape of pancake and roll in bread crumbs and a dash of cayenne. Fry in a little bit of butter, until browned and crispy on the outside.

Sweet and Sour Cabbage

1 small red or purple cabbage, sliced thin into strips

1 apple, peeled, cored, and diced

1 cup blueberry juice, bilberry juice, or any deep colored, unsweetened juice

2-3 tbsp red wine or apple cider vinegar

3 whole cloves or 1/2 tsp ground cloves

1 tbsp butter

Honey and salt to taste

Place cabbage and apple in medium-sized saucepan. Stir in jice, vinegar, and cloves. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer on low for 45 minutes, stirring every so often. Cook longer if you prefer it softer. Add butter, allow it to melt and then stir it into the cabbage mixture. Taste first, then add honey or salt as desired.

Rye Bread

3 cups rye flour

1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1/2 cup maple syrup or honey

1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 215 degrees. Mix dry ingredients. Add buttermilk and syrup. Turn dough out onto a clean surface and knead until soft, but not sticky. Add more buttermilk if needed. Divide the dough in half, and shape each half into a separate, well buttered loaf pan. Be sure to seal each pan tightly with foil so that the steam cannot escape. Place in the oven and bake for 10-12 hours.

Alternatively, bake at 325 degrees for 3-4 hours.

This bread will not look like a traditional loaf of bread. It doesn’t rise much and is dense with hard crust.

So, in honor of Icelanders everywhere, I am going to cook with more fish, consume more walnuts, and enjoy more berries with yogurt, but will probably skip the sheep.

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