Change in UK diets 'could trigger mental health crisis'

Changes in British diets are going to lead to an explosion in mental health problems, medical experts said yesterday. They warned of a crisis even bigger than the epidemic of obesity afflicting the UK.

They said that most of the increase could probably be blamed on changes in farming and food over the past 20 years, which have led to deficiencies in essential omega-3 fatty acids.

Experts will present new evidence at an international conference into the study of the impact of fatty acids in Brighton this week.

The role of omega-3 has previously been underplayed by scientists, but evidence is emerging that it could have a big affect on mental well-being.

Last week, the Food Standards Agency issued new advice encouraging people to eat more oily fish such as tuna and mackerel in a bid to increase intake of omega-3. Scientists are considering whether food should be fortified with the fatty acid in order to avert a health crisis in the future.

Professor Michael Crawford of London Metropolitan University, said: "This is a major health crisis and a really serious issue, which hasn't really been looked at before.

"We are going to have an epidemic of mental health problems in the future if we do not deal with this now. omega-3 has a major role to play in mental health and we need to start recognising that."

Research due to be released at the conference of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids this week will show that pregnant women with lower intakes of omega-3 are more likely to have children who will go on to have behavioural problems, attention disorders and other problems.

The mothers themselves were more likely to suffer from depression if they had lower-than-average intakes of the fatty acid.

Professor Crawford warned: "We are facing a monumental crisis here, and a lot of it is due to the very simple issue of diet."

This follows a study highlighted earlier this year by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which revealed a world-wide link between a lack of omega-3 in the diet and schizophrenia. This research showed that people who ate high levels of sugar and dairy products, instead of oily fish, were more likely to develop severe mental illness.

omega-3 is linked to brain development and mental health and is found in "green" foods such as cabbage due to the photosynthesis process.

Professor Crawford said that at the beginning of the century, people's omega-3 intake was higher because of traditional farming practices where cows and lambs were fed on grass.

However, intensive agriculture practices over the past 50 years have meant that livestock is now fed on grain and vitamins rather than omega-3-rich foods.

Mental health problems are already predicted to become the third most costly burden of disease in the world by 2020. The Independent on Sunday has been campaigning for more than two years to improve access to treatment for the mentally ill.

Scientists are concerned that unless the role of diet is highlighted by the Government, that burden could become worse. Researchers are already looking at ways to alter the feeding of dairy cows in order to increase the production of omega-3 in their milk.

Decreasing intake of omega-3 has also been linked to low rates of fruit and vegetable consumption in the UK.