Scientists are concerned that some people, in well-intentioned attempts to stave off heart disease, are going too far in cutting the fat from their diets. Dietary fats are a necessary ingredient for physical health, and may even protect against mental illness.
Essential fatty acids are dietary fats required for a healthy nervous and immune system. For example, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an important constituent of brain cell membranes. Many fats can be synthesized by the body, but some, like DHA, must be obtained through the diet. DHA is an omega-3 polyunsaturated fat, and the omega-3-type fats must be kept in balance with omega-6 fats to insure that proper physiological functioning can be maintained. While omega-6’s are abundant in the typical American diet – occurring in most vegetable oils – omega-3’s are harder to come by. One good source, however, is fish.
Scientists believe that too few omega-3 fats can increase the risk of depression, so moderating our intake of omega-6’s, and consuming more fish, may protect us from depression and suicide. In one study, when animal fats were replaced with fish in the diet, participants’ levels of depression declined. Another indicator of omega3’s mood-lifting powers are epidemiological studies showing that in countries where people eat a lot of fish, such as Japan and Taiwan, there is ten times less depression that in North America.
Achieving mental-emotional healing through dietary changes would always seem preferable to drug therapy. Drugs are not only expensive, but they bring the risk of undesirable side effects. For example, Prozac, the most widely prescribed medicine for depression, is now suspected of increasing the likelihood of premature delivery and health problems for newborns.
Based on information in: Psychology Today, May/June 1996; from Spectrum #52, January/February 1997, page 15