You probably know by now that eating the right foods can improve your mood and boost productivity, as well as benefiting your general health. Research shows that food’s ability to alter mood may be more powerful than anyone thought. So powerful that changing to a Mediterranean-style diet could be an effective treatment for depression.
That’s the result of an intriguing experiment by a team led by Felice Jacka, professor of nutritional and epidemiological psychiatry at Deakin University in Australia in 2017. Plenty of research over the years has shown that what you eat can have a profound effect on both mood and brain function. So Jacka and her team began wondering if that effect was so powerful it could actually help people with depression.
Depression is a serious illness and it’s not the same as feeling blue in the way that most people sometimes do. Jacka and her team evaluated 166 people who’d been diagnosed with depression and selected 67 subjects for the study. Most of them were receiving therapy, or taking medication for their illness, or both. About half the sample received 12 weekly counseling sessions with a nutritionist. The control group received weekly “social support” sessions of the same length as the nutritionist sessions during which they would chat or play cards with someone. This is because social interaction in itself can help fight depression, so the researchers wanted to make sure that social interaction was not the only cause of any improvement in the nutritionist group.
It seems that it wasn’t. After 12 weeks, both groups were evaluated using the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale, or MADRS. “The dietary support group demonstrated significantly greater improvement between baseline and 12 weeks on the MADRS than the social support control group,” the researchers write. Not only that, 32 percent of the nutrition intervention group went into remission from their depression, compared with 8 percent of the control group. And researchers found that subjects who improved their diets the most also saw the most improvement in their depression.
DASH diet may prevent depression in the elderly.
Since Jacka’s team published its research, a second, slightly larger trial that included giving subjects hampers of healthy foods showed similarly promising results. And newer research shows that the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) which encourages fruits, vegetables and limits saturated fats and sugar, may also prevent depression among older people.
When the Wall Street Journal tweeted about these findings a couple of weeks ago, many Twitter users had understandably negative reactions. Many who suffered from depression feared they’d be told their illness was their own fault for eating the wrong foods. Some pointed out an obvious conundrum: People who are suffering from depression often don’t have the energy or will to provide themselves with healthy meals, and they tend to be drawn to unhealthy “comfort” foods. (The researchers who provided depressed people with hampers of healthy food were onto something.)
I’ll stress again that depression is a serious illness with complex causes and that most who suffer from it are still far away from being able to replace antidepressants by eating vegetables and fish. At the same time, we know that depression lives in the brain, and that the Mediterranean and DASH diets support brain health. If you’re suffering from depression or even just feeling down, it might be worth changing your diet, perhaps just for a few weeks, to see whether it helps.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.
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