You are what you eat —- this often-used phrase has come to describe the belief that a person’s totality, including his health, appearance, mood, and thoughts, is shaped by the food he eats. Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante, 1826: Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.” meaning Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are. In an essay entitled Concerning Spiritualism and Materialism, 1863/4, Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach wrote: “Der Mensch ist, was er ißt, which translates into English as “man is what he eats.”
Actually, neither Brillat-Savarin or Feuerbach meant for their quotations to be taken literally. They were merely stating that the food that one eats has a bearing on one’s state of mind and health. The actual phrase didn’t emerge as part of the common English language until some time later. In the ’20s and ’30s, the nutritionist Victor Lindlahr, who was a strong believer in the idea that food controls health, developed what he called as the Catabolic Diet. The said diet was accepted and gained some adherents. Lindlahr’s theories became so popular that even advertising was shaped by his nutritional dogmas. A 1923 advertisement for beef released through the Bridgeport Telegraph had the following message: “Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.
To some, the old adage, “You are what you eat” may be a bit exaggerated. Still, many studies have shown that the food, water, and other substances we consume can have profound effects on our physical, mental, and emotional wellness. Evidence continues to mount up suggesting that the food we eat have powerful psychological effects.
For starters, there are clear connections between mood and food that are rich in folates like green leafy vegetables. A 1997 Harvard study supports earlier findings that show a link between folate deficiency and depressive symptoms. The study revealed that low folate levels can interfere with the antidepressant activity of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). A Tufts University study of nearly 2,948 individuals found that those who met the criteria for a lifetime diagnosis of major depression had lower serum and red blood folate concentrations than those who had never been depressed. Those with dysthymia had lower red blood cell folate only. The authors of the study recommend folate supplementation during the year following a depressive episode.
A case study from University of Alaska best exemplifies how food intake affect the people from the North Pole region. This happens when various populations change from their traditional means of consuming and procuring food to steak and lots of junk food. Though the traditional diets of circumpolar people vary from region to region, the menu generally draws from marine mammals, fish, hoofed animals, fur-bearing animals, birds and their eggs, plants, and berries. These food are rich in nutrients, with high levels of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants, while low in carbohydrates. However, radical changes in their diet occurred after establishing contact and engaging in trade with Westerners. Obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease were virtually unknown to the frozen North. The introduction of fat and carbohydrate-rich Western diets made previously unrecorded diseases to the North Pole.
A recent case study also found that rates of depression, seasonal affective disorder, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are on the rise in circumpolar regions, especially among non-isolated populations. Suicide rates have increased seven-fold in many northern populations over the past several decades. The authors of the case study acknowledge that the combined decline in mental health and the disappearance of traditional diets in circumpolar people make a direct connection between diet and mental health in these people a very real possibility.
“You are what you eat”, the phrase got a new lease of life in the ’60s Hippie era. The food of choice of the champions of this notion was macrobiotic wholefood and the phrase was adopted by them as a slogan for healthy eating. The belief in the diet in some quarters was so strong that when Adelle Davis, a leading spokesperson for the organic food movement, contracted cancer that later killed her, she attributed the illness to the junk food she had eaten at college. Indeed, you are what you eat and believe it!