Millions of Americans are affected by mental health issues, with anxiety, mood disorders and depression being among the most common.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18 percent of the U.S. population suffers from an anxiety disorder, and nearly half of those people have been diagnosed with depression. Remedies range from the pharmaceutical to the therapeutic, but we are beginning to understand something as simple as changing your diet can boost mental well-being and productivity.
Michael McCarthy, an entrepreneur since the age of 16, retired early but spent several years afterward battling depression and regular panic attacks. When he finally chose food as a potential tool for healing, it was out of desperation.
“I had to start looking toward body medicine, only because I had gone through the Western medicine approach, and it just didn’t fit for me,” McCarthy says. “Could you do something for anxiety and depression through food? And you can. It’s called orthomolecular medicine.”
Orthomolecular medicine, or food for medicinal function, was popularized in the 1940s but was overshadowed by pharmaceuticals, which provided quicker, albeit temporary, relief and were more profitable. While McCarthy’s experience jumping from prescription to prescription offered meager results, changing his diet provided almost immediate effects.
“Within 48 hours I had my last panic attack, and it’s been about nine years since I’ve had one,” McCarthy says.
Since then, McCarthy has come out of retirement and now teaches at Harvard. He frequently travels to give speeches about his “Food for Mood” dietary method.
Unlike most diets, McCarthy guarantees there’s no sacrifice in food choice or taste. Inspired by Julia Ross’ “The Mood Cure,” McCarthy’s diet is high in protein and fats, which he humorously calls “Grandma’s Diet”.
“This is the food that your grandma would have probably given you,” McCarthy says. “Have chicken with the skin on it, go for full-fat yogurt, eat eggs with the yolk.”
While Food for Mood might seem counter-intuitive to many supposedly healthy contemporary diets, it is focused on foods that increase mood function, while avoiding foods that are linked with increased anxiety.
According to the Center for Disease Control, foods that most positively affected mood and productivity contained folates, found in meats and greens; vitamin C, found in fruits; vitamin E, found in nuts; and Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and vegetable oils. McCarthy recommends avoiding what he calls “white foods” – flour, sugar and salt – as well as trans fats. Other unproductive foods include alcohol, processed foods and sugar substitutes.
McCarthy recommends planning your meals and eating every three to five hours to maintain a steady level of blood glucose. Skipping breakfast means you’ll never reach maximum mood function for the day, so planning how you eat is just as important as what you eat.
In the workplace, McCarthy aims to help people individually and create a healthy atmosphere. To him, every business, big or small, should offer their employees free meals.
“Give the people the good food for free,” he says. “I would still offer them their potato chips and Coca-Cola, I just won’t give you a discount. I think they’re just going to go for it.”
By offering free meals, businesses provide an incentive for their employees to arrive early and eat full, mood-enhancing meals, he says. Workers will be happier, which in turn increases cognitive performance and reduces the absentee rate.
While it’s difficult to put a dollar figure on the benefits, studies show clear improvements in the workplace when workers are properly fed, McCarthy says. A survey of more than 1,000 business professionals and employees indicated that more than 50 percent of workers would be happier if their companies served lunch, and more than 45 percent said they would be more focused and productive if meals were provided at work.
McCarthy is aware his diet isn’t for everyone, but to him there’s nothing healthier than a diet that makes you feel good about yourself.
“The most luxurious thing a human can ever do is give each other a good mood,” he says. “It’s something money can’t buy. Peace of mind is amazing.”