Symptoms of depression are all-too common in our modern culture, with many individuals believing they can do little to improve their mood aside from taking anti-depressant medications.
A recent study performed by researchers in Australia, however, found that even basic improvements in dietary quality may improve symptoms for individuals experiencing moderate to severe depression.
The study included 67 participants in Australia who were split between a treatment and a control group. Individuals in the control group received seven 60-minute sessions of personalized dietary and nutritional advice from a clinical dietician over the course of 12 weeks. During the dietary counseling sessions, participants were educated on and given support to increase their consumption of foods in 12 categories including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, low-fat and unsweetened dairy foods, raw and unsalted nuts, fish, lean red meats, chicken, eggs, and olive oil. The dieticians also provided support for participants to decrease their intake of foods correlated with a higher risk for depression including refined grains, sweets and sugary drinks, fried and fast-foods, processed meats, and alcohol (other than one or two glasses per day of wine consumed with meals). The researchers deemed this protocol the “Modified Mediterranean Diet”. Since the focus of this study was in mood-related outcomes rather than a focus on weight loss, the participants were advised to consume as much of the recommended foods as they desired.
Individuals in the control group received a matching social support protocol over the course of 12 weeks, which included a professional using a ‘befriending’ protocol with the participant, on the same schedule as the dietary support group. The befriending included conversation on neutral topics or playing card or board games.
All participants in the study had what researchers deemed to be a “poor quality” diet prior to the intervention. This meant their diets were low in fiber, lean proteins, and fruits and vegetables, and were high in processed meats, sugary sweets, and salty snack foods.
At the completion of the 12-week intervention the dietary support group demonstrated significantly greater improvements in depression symptomology than the social support control group. Additionally, a third of the dietary support group had achieved complete remission of their depression symptoms. Participants in the intervention group had increased their consumption of whole grains, fruit, dairy, olive oil, legumes and beans, and fish at the end of the 12 weeks. Their intake of processed meats, refined carbohydrates and sugary foods had declined substantially by about 22 servings per week. Meanwhile, there were no significant changes in the control group for any of the key food groups. There was no significant difference in Body Mass Index (BMI) or physical activity level between participants in either of the groups.
The study also found that for every 10 percent increase in adherence to following a healthier dietary pattern, there was a 2.2 point reduction in the participant’s depression rating scale. Individuals who experienced the most improvement were those who had been eating a more nutrient-depleted Standard American Diet (SAD) diet to begin with.
The results of this study were robust and suggest that improving one’s food intake according to current dietary recommendations is very beneficial for reducing depression symptoms. Specifically the following basic dietary changes are recommended:
- Eat nutrient-rich whole foods
- Reduce refined, processed, and sugary foods
While these recommendations may seem basic, this research provides excellent evidence that even simple diet changes can have a significant difference in relieving depression symptoms. I encourage parents to look at how they can swap out processed, refined, sugary foods with healthier fruits, vegetables, meats, whole grains, and healthy fats. Any effort parents can make to improve nutrition for their children and themselves will help the entire family have a better mood and happier life!
Jacka, F.N., O’Neil, A., Opie, R., Itsiopoulos, C., Cotton, S.,…and Berk, Michael. (2017). A randomized controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Medicine. 15:23. doi: 10.1186/s12916-017-0791-7.