Food on the Brain: A Correlational Examination of Food Deserts and Mental Illness Prevalence in the United States
Food insecurity is a major issue within the United States. Millions of households experience limited food availability, especially in regions deemed food deserts. Food deserts are geographical regions across the United States that possess limited access to grocery stores or supermarkets, and thus limited access to healthy food options. Individuals living in food deserts are at an increased risk of developing a mental illness, including depression, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Attentional Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Mental health is often associated with one’s environment or genetic susceptibility, and treatments are often focused on psychotherapeutic methods and prescription medication. In investigating food deserts and diets characteristic of food deserts, one can begin to make connections between food and mental health. Dietary patterns that exhibit greater concentrations of fats and sugars are associated with many of the symptoms of common mood disorders and are significant in producing biological indicators, like inflammation, which is identified in various neurodegenerative disorders. Brain foods like vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids among others, provide a unique lens into the ways the food and the brain interact, specifically through a concept termed the gut-brain axis. Research surrounding these connections, especially in a newer field called nutritional psychiatry, inform the ways in which researchers, scholars, and medical professionals understand mental health and food insecurity. These connections may also prompt future research in the field focused on food-based treatments and the use of food as a preventative form of medicine.