A new study published by a group of Australian researchers suggests that eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish, such as the Mediterranean diet, can help reduce the symptoms of depression.
The participants, who were between 17 and 35 years old, scored high for depression, anxiety and stress. One group was put on the Mediterranean diet for three weeks and told to avoid processed foods, saturated fats and refined sugars. Members of the control group continued on their usual diets.
With all that is known at this stage in nutrition history regarding the link between inflammation, mood and diet, it is not too early in the process to make a solid hypothesis that the Mediterranean diet can reduce depression symptoms.
To ensure they stuck to the diet, participants were given food items including olive oil, natural nut butter, nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, pepitas, sunflower seeds) and spices (cinnamon, turmeric) as well as a regular stipend to purchase additional food items.
Researchers said they chose this age group because “adolescence and young adulthood are a period where there is increased risk of depression, and these are also critical periods for establishing health patterns – such as diet – which will carry over into adulthood.”
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After the three-week period, the group that stuck to the Mediterranean diet experienced a decrease in their depression scores from the moderate range to the normal range. They also reported feeling less stressed and anxious.
Researchers noted that in addition to improved mood, there is a lot to gain in better physical health as well.
“These results are the first to show that young adults with elevated depression symptoms can engage in and adhere to a diet intervention and that this can reduce symptoms of depression,” the researchers wrote.
However, they added: “While there is convincing observational evidence for a link between diet quality and depression, the evidence for a causal relationship is still emerging, particularly in relation to young adults.”
The researchers’ findings were published in the journal, Plos One.
Caitlin Self, a Baltimore-based licensed nutritionist who works at a mental health practice, said the findings of the study match what she has witnessed in her clinical practice.
“We know for sure that there is a relationship between diet and depression, but in order to truly test this causal interaction, we would need a larger sample size and replicated studies to accurately assess what percentage of the population is susceptible to diet-induced depression,” Self said.
The study is part of a growing body of research that shows how diet impacts mental health. In fact, the field of nutritional psychiatry is one that is gaining momentum.
The Mediterranean diet integrates healthy fats, such as omega‑3 fatty acids, while also removing processed foods which are known to be inflammatory. Omega‑3 is known to be anti-inflammatory making it possible to reduce inflammation and its side effects through this diet, according to Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet.
“With all that is known at this stage in nutrition history regarding the link between inflammation, mood and diet, it is not too early in the process to make a solid hypothesis that the Mediterranean diet can reduce depression symptoms,” she said.
However, she added: “Additional research should be done regarding the role of medication and counseling coupled with this diet patterns. It would be unwise to suggest that a diet alone could mitigate everyone’s depression symptoms.”
In April, a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine looked at 16 previously published peer-reviewed studies comparing the effects of dietary interventions to non-dietary control conditions involving more than 46,000 participants.
They came to the conclusion that “dietary interventions hold promise as a novel intervention for reducing symptoms of depression across the population.”
However, they too determined that further research was needed.
Kristen Ciccolini, a Boston-based nutritionist, said that while it takes an average of 17 years for evidence in research to make it into clinical practice, there is plenty of research on the gut-brain connection, as well as about nutrients’ role in mental health.
“I’ve seen it help in my personal life and in my practice, and because it’s such a low-risk route to take, I don’t see a downside in trying to eat strategically in this way,” said Ciccolini.
She added that while an improved diet may not cure depression, “it certainly helps to have foods with nutrients that support gut health (where serotonin is produced) and brain health.”