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Fiber, Lentils, and Mental Health

March 22, 2011

Today, more then ever, we are assaulted with difficult decisions about what to eat. We are in more of a hurry then ever and feel more stressed as a result. Time is not on our side, as Rod Steward may have you believe. But the result of this has not been something to sing about. Because we are under more stress, anxiety and depression rates have gone up. And when I say gone up, what I mean is sky-rocketed. As it turns out, anxiety now affects about 18% of the adult population, is the number one mental health issue in the U.S., and costs the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, almost one-third of the country’s $148 billion total mental health bill. Further, the number of people suffering from depression is doubling every 20 years and the rates in children are increasing by 23% every year, according to a Harvard Medical School study. Also keep in mind that this is simply for anxiety and depression. I am not even including other diagnosis like bipolar, ADHD, and schizophrenia.

But why is this? Why has there been such an increase in mental health issues? There could be arguments for any number of reasons such as: more toxins in the environment, less community, more need to be away from family, and of course a total change in what, how, and when we eat. It is the last one that I believe to be amongst the most damaging to our collective mental health. If we stop to think about what we now eat compared to what our grandparents most likely ate, we can see that we are now consuming sugar with a side of processed ingredients. Here’s what I mean: Americans are now ingesting, on average, 2-3 pounds of sugar a week. Over the last 20 years, Americans have gone from eating 26 pounds to 135 pounds of sugar per person, per year. Even more astounding is that prior to the turn of this century, the average consumption was only five pounds per person, per year. As simple as the math is, it is still amazing that in a little over 100 years, we now consume 130 more pounds of sugar a year, on average.

This increase in sugar consumption has increased the rates of almost all illnesses: diabetes, coronary heart disease, obesity . . . the list goes on. It has also increased the rates of mental illness. And since this blog is dedicated to mental health and food, I will stick with that.

This is where fiber comes in. In order for us to consume that much more sugar, we have had to increase not only how much we eat and how often we eat, but also what we eat. And what we eat now comes with very little fiber. This is the only way that it could be possible to consume this quantity of sugar, mostly because fiber makes us feel full.

Think about it. The number one place sugar is added is in soft drinks. There is no fiber in soft drinks. How about cookies or cake? Nope, generally no fiber. In fact, no matter where you look, processed foods, those where the most sugar has been added, contain virtually no fiber. Fast food is fast for a very simple reason: It has almost no fiber. This is a requirement for us to be able to cook food fast.

So, here’s the link and reason I’m going on about sugar and fiber. It is the increase in sugar combined with the lack of fiber in our diets that has caused such calamitous outcomes. This is because fiber acts like a sponge and soaks up sugar in our bodies. I know this is not too technical, but you get the idea.

The bottom line is that not only does fiber soak up sugar, but it also regulates the release of sugar into bodies. This is a great thing because the slower sugar is released into our bodies, the less hard our pancreas has to work to release enough insulin to deal with the sugar (no insulin resistance as a result). It also means that less sugar gets into our blood stream (no sugar spikes and crashes). Both of these things mean more stability in our body and mind and less feelings of hunger through the day (amongst other things, it’s the drop in blood glucose that causes hunger).

Fiber is good.

And the best places to get fiber are in fruits, vegetables, and beans. Which finally brings me to lentils. Our ancestors used to get between 100 -300 grams of fiber a day. We now get, on average, 12 – 15. However, this is not enough. According to many nutrition experts, not the least of whom work for places like Yale and Harvard, we need far more then this. In fact, these experts advise that we consume at least 40, if not 60, grams a day. The quickest way to bump up our current intake is to eat lentils.

Lentils have been around for over 8,000 years. They originally come from central Asia and are now a staple food in India, occurring in such foods as Dal. One cup of lentils contains 15.64 grams of fiber (63% of our daily value according to the USDA, but this is thought to be too low). This is simply amazing. With just one cup of lentils (brown, green, red, or any color) you get more fiber than the average American. And as I showed above, more fiber equals mental health stability.

So here’s what you can do to help your depression, anxiety, or any mental health issue really:

  1. eat less processed food as it will certainly contain added sugar
  2. eat more fiber in the forms of fruits, vegetables, and beans
  3. exercise more as this helps the body use and better regulate sugar and insulin
  4. get more sleep as this helps the body regenerate
  5. take time to relax and meditate at least 15 minutes a day

And here’s a way to get more lentils in your diet.

Lentil and escarole soup

Adapted from The complete vegetarian handbook by Kathy Farrell-Kingsley

This is an amazingly simple soup to cook. It’s packed with fiber from lentils, has leafy greens, and tastes great.

1 tbsp olive oil

1 medium organic onion, chopped

2 stalks organic celery, chopped

1 large organic carrot, chopped (never peel the carrot as this is where much of the nutrients are)

2-4 cloves garlic, minced

1 can (14 ounces) tomatoes, drained and chopped or already diced

8 ounces red, brown, or green lentils (1 1/4 cups)

4-6 cups water or stock (depending on how ‘soupy’ you like it)

salt and pepper to taste

1 head of organic escarole (about 1 pound)

1/2 cup grated organic Parmesan cheese

1. Heat oil over medium heat.*

2. Add onion, celery, carrot, and garlic. Cook and stir often until vegetables are soft.

3. Add tomatoes, reduce heat to low, and cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes.

4. Add lentils and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until the lentils are tender, about 30 – 45 minutes.

5. Season with salt and pepper. Also, think creatively about spices. You can add others such as dill, thyme, oregano, or basil.

6. Meanwhile, separate the escarole leaves and rinse. Stack the leaves and cut them crosswise into 1/2 inch wide strips. When the lentils are tender, stir in the escarole.

7.Return the soup to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the escarole is tender, about 10 minutes.

To serve, ladle into bowls and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

*never heat olive oil, or any oil, to smoking. The result is that the oil becomes toxic and not just in the cooking, but also in the vapors.

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