New Science Links Food and Happiness

Joe Hibbeln, M.D., believes our diet is making us depressed, addicted and violent. He thinks he’s found a simple solution.

Captain of the Happier Meal

May/June 2010

By Rachael Moeller Gorman

Joe Hibbeln, M.D. Joe Hibbeln maneuvers his small blue Mazda 626 around traffic on a wide boulevard in Bethesda, Maryland.

“How many people,” he shouts over the noise from the open window, “even Miss America, say ‘I want to make the world a happier place’?” He turns the wheel sharply to the left. “Well, I’m doin’ it! I’m zeroing in on a nutritional deficiency that makes the world an unhappy place.”

Hibbeln, a captain in the United States Public Health Service, one of the country’s seven uniformed services (“army of the Surgeon General,” says Hibbeln), is talking about omega-3 fatty acids. He has, in fact, devoted his entire career to studying the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that are best known for their heart-health benefits. He loves them. He loves the fish they come from.

Hibbeln, 49, is average height, with dark, graying hair slightly longer on top and matching bushy eyebrows. His love affair with fats began simply. In a musty autopsy suite at the University of Illinois-Chicago medical school more than 25 years ago, Hibbeln, an aspiring psychiatrist, held a brain for the first time. It was jiggly and white, not what one would expect of a computing juggernaut. “What the heck is this thing made of?” Hibbeln asked. Mostly fat, his instructor replied.

Fascinated by the idea that the most complex organ in our bodies was, in large part, a type of tissue most of us want to get rid of, Hibbeln began scouring the scientific literature to learn more about how the fat comprising the brain influenced its function. He kept encountering the work of Norman Salem, Jr., Ph.D., a neurobiologist who studied docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a particular type of omega-3 fat prevalent in the brain—and in fish. (Fish often consume a lot of omega-3-rich algae or eat other, smaller fish that do.)

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