We all know that food can certainly impact our mood (try going without for 24 hours!) but can food actually help with mental health disorders such as depression? Mental health disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide, with depression accounting for the largest proportion of that burden. Half of sufferers are helped by currently available medical and psychological therapies, but new treatment options for depression are urgently needed. (1)
New Research links a healthy diet with reductions in depressive symptoms.
There have been many studies linking a healthy diet with good mental health, but little research has been done using diet as a combined intervention for people diagnosed with depressive disorders. The SMILES Trial, run out of the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University, was one of the first gold standard randomised controlled trials that tested if diet could significantly reduce depressive symptoms. Two groups of participants were randomly assigned to a ‘control group’ with no diet changes or a ‘dietary intervention group’ who were put onto the ModiMedDiet (modified Mediteranian diet) which they followed for 12 weeks.
Results of the study, which was published in the Journal BMC Medicine, found that a third of those in the dietary intervention group met criteria for complete remission of major depression compared to only eight percent in the control group. Think of a room full of 100 people with clinical depression then after 12 weeks, 33 people were no longer clinically depressed (instead of just eight). How encouraging is that!?
Which Foods can best help to improve our mood?
Unfortunately it’s not chocolate, chips and lasagne that will help our mood in the long term (although many an empty ice cream container has caught our tears!). In fact there is no one magic food but rather a pattern of eating that has shown a lot of promise. This pattern is known as the ModiMedDiet (modified mediteranian diet) which was designed using existing guidelines from Greece and Australia, combined with traditional mediteranian diet principles and evidence from nutritional psychiatric epidemiology. The diet is made up of:
- fresh fruits
- whole grains (such as wholemeal pasta and bread)
- extra virgin olive oil
- Fish, especially oily fish such as salmon and mackerel
- Small amounts of meat and dairy
There is an abundance of whole foods and absence of processed foods. The modified version allows for an 80/20 rule, with some room for the ‘not so mediteranian foods’ to be included (and the mental health benefits are still there). This makes the diet more sustainable and therefore most likely more effective.
The mechanisms of exactly how this healthy diet may benefit mental health are still being investigated but emerging research into the Omega-3 PUFAs, anti-inflammatory effects and improved gut and gut microbiota are being investigated. In fact, several recent studies have linked the gut microbiome not only to depression (2), but also to conditions such as Cystic Fibrosis, type 2 diabetes(3), autism (4), asthma, and Crohn’s disease.
It’s encouraging to know that food can have such a positive impact on our mood, and yet another reason to stock up on nutrient dense, good quality food and ditch the junk.
Amelia Phillips is a nutritionist, exercise scientist and online health coach who has helped thousands live a healthier life through optimised nutrition and targeted supplementation.