Highlights from Jonathan Otto's interview with John Robbins, for the Depression & Anxiety Series. John Robbins discusses how lifestyle practices either enhance or compromise mental health. He also discusses the impact of food on the mind.

John Robbins

John: I’m not opposed to the use of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs for specific situations occasionally. They have a place. But they’re way over-prescribed, and they’re prescribed in many cases where lifestyle changes would actually cure the problem in the first place. People would just feel so much better. They’d be more alive, they’d feel more vital, they’d feel more creative, they’d feel more positive, they’d feel more steady, they’d feel more peaceful. Because they were getting enough exercise and the right nutrition in their bodies.

There are certain kind of substances that are in our food supply that we have normalized, everybody’s eating them. Everybody around us. They’re convenient, they’re packaged in tasty ways, and often inexpensive and readily accessible ways, very convenient ways, but they undermine our mental health. They undermine our brain health. They undermine our emotional health. And we know that they make people obese, and we know that they make ... You know, heavy. And they make people, they lead to increased rates of heart disease and cancer. But lately we’ve been learning that they also lead to increased rates of Alzheimer’s Disease and cognitive impairment as people age, and we’re learning that they lead to increased rates of depression and anxiety. And if you don’t eat that way and you eat more healthy foods, the rates of depression and the severity of the depression goes down quite a bit.

And similarly, there are ... There’s explanations for that. We understand why that is. We’ve learned that there’s a microbiome in the gut that affects the brain, and is affected by what we eat. There’s also a microbiome in the brain that actually is affected by what we eat, and the neurotransmitters and how they function are affected by what we eat. And the degree of inflammation in our brain is affected by what we eat. And so when you eat the foods that aren’t creating the inflammation and that are feeding the right neurotransmitters and balance and not pushing too hard in some and pulling against others, then the brain can do what it’s meant to do, which is to think clearly and enable us to have mental states and emotional states that are productive and positive and joyful and loving, and beautiful.

And we are meant to have those kinds of experiences. We’re built for that. Life is actually capable in the human form of feeling wonderful, and feeling up to the challenges and difficulties and experiences that we will face in our lives.

So but it does need, the brain needs the proper nutrition. And so what you need to eat are lots of plants in their whole food ways that ... There’s a real difference from eating a baked potato, for example, versus eating a french fry or a potato chip. There’s a real different between eating a salad that’s full of a mixture of different greens and vegetables and maybe even some berries in there, maybe some seeds and a diversity of nutrients versus eating an iceberg lettuce with a store bought dressing that’s poured on top of it and maybe a tomato that ships really well, and looks like a tomato, but has no taste and no nutrients.

It’s interesting that the taste is often ... The taste of real foods is often an indication of the nutrient base. But we have in our food supply so much sugar and so much salt and so much fat, different types of fat that are very injurious, particularly to the brain. Because they oxidize very rapidly and that causes oxidation in the brain and that leads to aberrations in brain function that leads to emotional states that are challenging to deal with, and unnecessary. And we can’t ... But those fats and those sugars and salts are in so many of our processed foods, manufactured foods, packaged foods that are all around us in stores that we eat too much of them. Some of us eat way too much of them.

The optimal amount of those kinds of foods to eat is pretty close to zero, actually. And when you stop eating those kinds of foods or greatly reduce it and instead eat natural, whole foods, plant foods, you are amazed within weeks how much better you feel. Your mood is just so much more buoyant, and so if someone insults you or offends you or life challenges you, you’re stuck in traffic, you have to wait in a long line, you didn’t get enough sleep, there’s too much work to do, there’s too many demands on you. These are experiences that we all have. You’re time stressed, you don’t have the time to take care of yourself the way you would like to. These happens in life. This is part of our culture.

But, if your nutrition is where it should be, you’re going to relax. You’re going to take the blows in a way, you’re gonna absorb them in a way that almost feeds your self-esteem. ‘Cause well, I’m handling that. I’m handling that. And there’s a feeling then that you’re capable of life. When we’re frightened, and contracted, and diminished in our response to challenges because we aren’t getting the nutrition that we need to think clearly, and think and respond quickly, and constructively to the challenges that confront us, that’s a different story.

And I think people profoundly underestimate the role that healthy nutrition can play in preventing and even healing conditions like depression and anxiety. I think these ... And to not try diet, to go right to the drugs, which have side effects, and those side effects are harmful. Even the actual effects of the drugs are harmful, because you are messing with the emotions. So for example, person on an anti-depressant may get relief from their depression, but they get their emotions squashed. They’re playing on just a flat level. So then they don’t empathize as deeply with their friends and family, they lose the ability to feel sad when it’s right to feel that. We’re meant to feel sad at some things, and angry at some things, and bored with some things. Those are actually signals sometimes that we need to get so we understand how we feel with life, and people.

There’s so much of food addiction and addiction to the wrong foods and there’s so many people consuming foods that are highly addictive and they’ve been designed to be addictive and this is something that we often don’t understand. Industry, the food industry, the food manufacturers hire scientists that they call cravability experts.

That’s their term, whose job it is to enhance the cravability of foods, in other words, to make those foods as addictive as possible and when they say in their ads, “Bet you can’t eat just one,” they’re actually have designed the food to be that way so that as a food ... Most people won’t overeat broccoli. Maybe there’s somebody that does. But most of us eat it and then we feel satisfied and we are satisfied because we’re getting the nutrients that we need to function well and to function beautifully and to be our best selves and when you eat ice cream, you just want more and again, I’m using ice cream as an example. It’s the same with Doritos. It’s the same with so many of our packaged foods and it could be the salt. It could be the sugar. It could be the bad fats. It could be all three of them at once. I mean, the food industry will do anything to get you hooked on foods that will keep you buying them and buying them. It’s not their purpose to undermine your wellbeing and undermine your mental health.

They’re not trying to do that. They’re trying to sell you product and get you hooked on it so you’ll buy it again and again and again. It just so happens that the food stuffs and the ingredient that are most addictive are the ones that do undermine your health, that do undermine your balance and your equilibrium, that do make you anxious and upset and disturbed easily, that do, in time, make you depressed and feel like crap and you don’t have to feel like crap and when you eat healthily, you may not get that rush of the candy bar or the ice cream or the dessert or the snack food that’s been designed by very, very thorough science to have that effect on you and make you crave more of it. But you will feel better and you will in time feel more pleasure.

I experience more pleasure right now in eating, say, a simple baked potato that’s organically grown and is fresh and is well cooked than I ever did eating potato chips or a baked potato smothered in sour cream and gravy because, and I use this as an example, because my taste buds, I’ve reclaimed my taste buds and I’ve reclaimed the ability to experience pleasure from natural and simple things and wholesome things.

When you get your pleasures from artificial things and things that are bad for your health, you undermine your capacity to experience pleasure from simple things and natural things and wholesome things and beautiful things and that’s one of the real prices that you pay. You get hooked into this artificial sources of pleasure and you lose just the pleasure in being alive, the simple pleasures of waking up in the morning, feeling good, of meeting challenges, knowing that you’re doing so from a peaceful place inside yourself and knowing that you have a center within yourself from which to give your gifts, from which to meet life’s difficulties, from which to love people and you can rest in that center and you’re getting the nutrition you need to support that. The foods to eat are things like as many vegetables as you can, raw and cooked, both, fruits, seeds and nuts, for people who can’t eat grains, whole grains, not refined ones. I don’t eat any flour products. I eat whole grains and I avoid the ones that are gluten containing for the most part. Some people need to do that.

Some people are gluten intolerant or have celiac disease and any amount of gluten will upset their system and damage them and make them irritable and other people are more tolerant and some people can eat a lot. You have to find out where you are in that spectrum through your own experience and honor your own experience. But nobody does well with refined flour products. If you’re gonna eat grains, eat whole grains and there are healthier version of almost everything. There’s healthy desserts made from fresh fruit. I mean, fruit is wonderful and to eat a strawberry, to eat a blueberry, to eat a raspberry, when your taste buds haven’t been hijacked by the excessively sweet products that are sold in our culture, that we think we’re treating ourselves with when we buy these rich desserts, we’re actually stealing from ourselves the ability to taste the blackberry, the raspberry, the apple, the pear, any fruit. Well, there’s a tremendous amount of emotional suffering in our world. There’s so many people who are hurting emotionally. They don’t feel good about themselves. They’re depressed. They’re anxious. They’re agitated.

They just don’t experience themselves in a way that’s inspiring and is positive and they don’t feel up to the challenges that life hits them with and you’re addressing that and you’re addressing that as somebody who’s uniquely sensitive to the role that diet and nutrition plays in these issues and also very sensitive to people’s feelings and it takes someone with compassion to address people’s emotional pain because people feel judged. People judge themselves. We all have kind of inner critics and inner saboteurs in our minds. We all have that and it takes somebody who is compassionate and accepting and has founds in themselves a peace in relationship to suffering that can convey that peace, convey that compassion, convey that acceptance so that people feel it’s safe to feel what they feel, it’s safe then to let it out. It’s safe them to express it and find healthy ways to express feelings that otherwise bottle up and keep up contracted and keep us restricted and unfree.