Paleo & Depression: How Eating Paleo Can Increase Your Happiness Too!
Written by Brooke English
on February 20, 2020
What you’ll learn within this article:
- How true the adage is that, we are what we eat.
- What’s the bottom line verdict? Is wheat good for us or not?
- Why gluten-free is not a healthier replacement
- How Paleo is the optimal diet, for both our physical and emotional health
Some of the questions we'll answer:
- Is wheat good for us?
- Can Paleo help with depression?
- What are general benefits of the Paleo diet?
- Is there a book where I can learn more about Paleo and mental health?
- Is wheat part of a healthy diet?
- Is gluten-free a safe swap for wheat?
You Are What You Eat. Here’s How:
We’ve all heard the adage, "you are what you eat." However, this extends beyond just physical health. What you eat can have a powerful effect on emotions, mood, energy levels, even anxiety and depression. Going Paleo can have a wildly positive effect in this arena. Here’s how.
A widening span of research over the last decade is revealing that a healthy diet- one high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and unprocessed lean meats (specifically red meat) can prevent depression (source). And that conversely, an unhealthy diet, one high or even moderate in sweets, processed foods, and alcohol, tends to increase the incidence of depression. Furthermore, new studies have shown that a healthy diet may not only prevent depression but effectively help with treating it.
Case Studies & Evidence
A study published in BMC Medicine (source) put to the test, the question as to whether improving the diets of people with major depression would help improve their mood. They chose 67 people with depression, some of whom were already being treated with antidepressants, others with psychotherapy, and some with both.
After twelve weeks, the people who improved their diets displayed significantly happier moods than those who received mere social support. And, the people who improved their diets the most showcased the highest degree of improvement. A second, larger study done by researchers at the University of South Australia which was published in 2017 in Nutritional Neuroscience (source) drew similar conclusions.
Our Readily Expanding Field of Science (And How What We Think We Know, Isn’t Always Correct)
According to lifeandhealth.org, "nutritional psychiatry" is a recent development in the medical world. However, it’s also a rapidly growing research field (source). Continuing to expand our understanding of the effects that diet has on mental health is crucial because of the plethora of chronic diseases which have become more prevalent throughout our society. This is, in large part, due to our consumption of highly processed foods, as well as following rather terrible nutritional standards as a cultural whole.
Is Wheat Part of a Healthy Diet?
Now, we know what you Paleo people are thinking. Though the above claims that whole grains are inclusive of a healthy diet, whole grains aren't part of the Paleo diet because they aren’t healthy…or are they? Keep in mind that much of the information we have been fed as being healthy, we have later gone on to learn (via continued research and our ever increasing knowledge) is incorrect.
As one example, for years we have been led to believe that antidepressants cure depression. We now know via much medical and scientific research over the last several years that this isn’t so (Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, and the Unexpected Solutions, Hari J, 2018). That, while a component of depression can be connected to the brain, we put far too much weight in this belief than is the reality. That instead, depression is tied far more closely to our life situation and instinctual human needs being met, than to the brain.
Thus, consider the food pyramid that we have lived by for decades. Bread, pasta, crackers, you name it, are foods we have been urged to eat in large quantity. We’ve been told these are the platform and base to a healthy diet. We’ve since come to understand that certain bread products, like white bread and pasta, are not great for us. Yet, many still adhere to the belief that "whole grains" are good and that there is no major issue with consumption of wheat.
The Real Verdict on Wheat
However, those who subscribe to the Paleo diet can take solace in the research of Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health. He makes a strong case, via his own findings through treatment of patients, as well as weaving in various other in-depth research and science, that wheat wreaks havoc on our health in a number of ways.
According to the research of Dr. Davis, wheat raises your blood sugar more than any other food, even more so than a candy bar. How shocking is that? This routine blood sugar increase via consumption of wheat, putting you on the fast track toward diabetes. Over time, eating wheat regularly keeps your blood sugar levels high, which means insulin is moving throughout your blood much of the time. This contributes toward the growth of belly fat over the long term.
What is possibly more worrisome: eventually your body can become resistant to insulin. The more foods you eat which continually spike your blood sugar and cause a release of insulin to rush out and save the day (the highest culprits of which tend to be wheat and sugar). Eventually, your insulin can actually stop working. You essentially wear out the system through overuse. This is when one gets diabetes. And all of this is via one’s own doing, based on what they choose to put into their body.
Is Gluten-Free Truly a Safe Swap?
As a side note, we've been wrongly led to believe as a culture at large that "gluten-free" is where it's at. That gluten-free is a healthy substitute and method of still eating the foods we enjoy, such as bread, pasta, crackers, and all manner of desserts. This could not be more incorrect. Dr. William Davis reveals this in lengthily detail in Wheat Belly.
Gluten is the protein that binds together dough. It’s what gives the dough its elastic texture. And while gluten isn’t wheat, (many people do not understand this distinction) they assume that gluten-free is healthy, safe, and a non-wheat of sorts. This is inaccurate. And, people today seem to feel as though replacing their usual bread products with a gluten-free version is "healthy" and the ultimate no-guilt swap. Not so fast.
Most gluten-free foods replace wheat with cornstarch, rice starch, potato starch, or tapioca starch. These still trigger the same glucose spike and insulin response that wheat does. Yes, you read that right. They do essentially the same thing in your body that consumption of wheat products incites. Even more alarming, they are among the few foods that increase blood sugar even more than wheat does
Thus, even for those with Celiac and who must adhere to a gluten-free diet for health reasons, the health implications stand that wheat products, even if gluten-free, cause health problems. It then makes the most sense, for those who are concerned with maintaining utmost health, to avoid all wheat products (pasta, breads, crackers), even if they are gluten-free. If they contain things like cornstarch, rice starch, potato starch, or tapioca starch? They aren’t good for you, gluten-free or not.
Back to wheat though and why it’s the devil.
Within Wheat Belly, the reader learns how wheat disrupts pH levels in the body, resulting in the weakening of one’s bones. It ages you horribly. Wheat can give you heart disease. And, it messes with neurological functioning, which causes your thinking to become murky and muddled. Wheat also destroys your skin, causing inflammation and acne.
And, it is highly addictive. Triggering a boost of feel-good brain chemicals on eating it. Many people report literally feeling addicted to bread and wheat. Some even go through mild depression for a couple of days initially on cutting it out. And again, this has nothing to do with gluten. It’s wheat that is the issue.
This, of course, keeps you eating routinely throughout the day, and more of this health destroying item (wheat). This is why people often feel hungry a mere three or four hours after eating a meal. Because the majority of us tend to include some form of wheat product with each meal, even if only a small one. This spikes our blood sugar, causing energy levels to soar and then crash a few hours later, which is when one begins to feel hungry once again.
Dr. Davis has observed that some people begin seeing devastating effects on their health as a result of wheat consumption in their forties or fifties. Others experience it as early as their twenties or thirties. You cannot possibly know when such will emerge. The point though is that the stakes are high.
Why a Healthy Diet, Minus the Wheat (aka, Paleo) is the Optimal Diet
Thus, with all of the above research combined, it seems relatively safe and logical to conclude that the Paleo diet, one quite similar to the healthy diet as described in the beginning of the article, will have poignantly positive effects on one's emotional and mental health, minus the consumption of those horrible-for-you-in-reality whole grains. Think of Paleo as a traditionally thought of healthy diet, leveled up.
Since wheat is addictive and boosts feel good chemicals in the brain, leading to a crashing come-down shortly thereafter, keeping wheat as a part of one’s diet helps one remain firmly trapped in the seat of this wheat caused emotional and physical rollercoaster. As heartfelt Paleo subscribers know, in eliminating wheat from one’s plate, following eating a meal, one tends to remain satisfied for hours longer than one did when eating bread products (and remember, this includes gluten-free substitutes of those very foods).
The culmination of all this research indicates that a Paleo diet offers much benefit beyond merely the physical (easier weight maintenance, higher energy levels, clearer skin, more stable moods, remaining satisfied for hours longer, sleeping better, lower blood pressure, to name a few). Going Paleo can improve your mental and emotional health in significant ways as well.
Author: Brooke English
Brooke is a food fanatic, dessert devotee, and impassioned writer. She studied health sciences in college, though she emerged with a degree in Communications, with concentrations in health and psychology. She is an avid reader of health books, articles, and more, as she finds reading to be one of the greatest and most worthy forms of education. Brooke is a routine writer on Medium.com, specifically a "top writer" in the categories of inspiration, love, books, psychology, reading, relationships, life lessons, culture, and health. She is the author of three blogs and has been published in a handful of online publications.