Human diets have changed dramatically over the last century, and the impact of industrialisation on our food supply has had devastating consequences for public health.
The detrimental effects of highly processed 'junk food diets' on physical health are well recognised, but far less attention has been paid to their consequences for mental health and wellbeing. Abundant evidence now links modern, western-type diets - rich in highly processed, refined foods - not only to increased rates of 'degenerative' physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease, cancers, obesity and Type II diabetes but also to a wide range of mental health disorders, including ADHD and autism, anxiety, depression, psychosis and dementia. Developing countries adopting the same type of diet are now seeing a similar surge in physical and mental health problems to those already affecting the UK, US and other developed countries. Diet is obviously only one of many factors contributing to these disturbing trends, but its impact can no longer be ignored. The scale of the mental health 'epidemic' the world is now facing is immense. A recent comprehensive study found that in any one year, 38% of the European population has a fully diagnosable psychiatric or neurological disorder. The cost burden is equally enormous. UK government figures showed that in 2007, the annual cost of mental health disorders was £77 billion, and by 2010, this had already risen to £105 billion. This lecture explored how our diets can and do affect our mental health and performance, taking a multi-disciplinary perspective that draws on evidence from epigenetics and neuroscience as well as epidemiological studies and clinical trials, and discussing its implications for research, policy and practice.