Pushing Forward, Giving Back

Pushing Forward, Giving Back

Bonnie Kaplan is passionate about the connection between nutrition and mental health

By Nathan Kunz • Photography by Erin Brooke Burns

Bonnie Kaplan published her first academic article on nutrients and their effect on the brain as a grad student in 1972. Fast-forward 50 years, and the University of Calgary professor emerita and celebrated research psychologist’s dedication to the field remains: writing, lecturing and making media appearances about the link between proper nutrition and mental health.

Recently, Kaplan has focused on sharing this knowledge with the right changemakers and, ultimately, the wider world.

“I often say that a lot of what I’m doing right now is born of frustration,” says Kaplan. “My goal is not to write books or write articles or do interviews. My goal is to change the way mental health treatment is designed.”

Kaplan’s work affects us all. Studies have shown roughly 50 per cent of what we eat in North America is ultra-processed and contains virtually no micronutrients (minerals and vitamins). At the same time, mental health diagnoses have risen exponentially since Kaplan began her training, with the World Health Organization reporting that around 20 per cent of the world’s population are now living with a mental health condition.

The medical response to these rising rates has stayed much the same — medicate. Kaplan and her colleagues suggest another response — look at diet and micronutrient treatment first, along with other lifestyle variables.

As Kaplan approached her mid-60s, she began thinking about how she could step back while still contributing to progress in her field. She settled on two goals: translating her knowledge, along with the work of her colleagues, to the public; and philanthropic work to ensure bright young researchers have support digging into nutrition and mental health.

Kaplan’s dedication to sharing her knowledge is apparent through her lectures, interviews and writing — most notably her acclaimed 2021 book, The Better Brain, penned with fellow researcher Julia J. Rucklidge.

To support young researchers Kaplan established the Nutrition & Mental Health Fund at the Calgary Foundation in 2015. Along with a separate Fund she set up in the U.S., Kaplan’s Funds have distributed over $1 million CAD in research grants, far exceeding her expectations of raising $50,000 CAD.

Six years in, Kaplan has funded research and initiatives worldwide. Projects include an ongoing Canada- U.S. clinical research trial of micronutrient treatment in children with ADHD and mood problems; multiple analyses in New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. of the gut microbiome of children who have been treated with micronutrients; and NSTEP, an education program dedicated to teaching healthy habits to Canadian children.

“I see the results,” says Kaplan. “I see scientists, my junior colleagues, able to continue their research in the field of nutrition and mental health.”

While studies largely provide evidence-backed data supporting a foodfirst approach to treatments, Kaplan says getting the public and medical establishment to implement change remains an uphill battle. Despite the challenges — and largely because of them — Kaplan continues to push forward.

“I do not intend to sit on the million- dollar success and say, ‘That’s it,’” says Kaplan. “I’m always looking for more funds for these important projects.”