A good diet can play a significant role in keeping depression at bay, writes Paula Goodyer.
With depression and diet now linked, it pays to eat well.
How important is food to mental health? Important enough to have guidelines on how to eat to reduce the risk of depression, say a group of international researchers, including Australia’s Professor Felice Jacka, director of Deakin University’s Food & Mood Centre.
“Traditional ways of eating, such as following the Mediterranean diet, have been consistently linked to a lower risk of depression, while diets high in processed food are linked to an increased risk,” she says.
What makes these regimens so mood-boosting? Like the traditional Japanese and Nordic diets – the latter of which is a Scandinavian style of eating that centres on fish, vegetables, wholegrains, pasture-fed meats, yoghurt and berries – the Mediterranean diet is heavy on plant-based foods and rich in nutrients. It delivers plenty of antioxidants that protect against oxidative stress, which is linked to depression.
“A large dietary trial in Europe provided evidence to suggest that a Mediterranean diet – particularly one that includes raw nuts – could reduce the risk of developing depression.”
When it comes to the part of the brain involved with depression, size matters – and what we eat can affect that too. Research carried out by Professor Jacka in 2015 found that older adults whose diets included more sweet drinks, salty snacks and processed meats had a smaller left hippocampus – the part of the brain that’s integral to learning, memory and mental health – and it was larger in those eating more vegetables, fruit and fish.
So if diet can help lower the risk of developing depression, can it also help people who already have it? A new study by the Food & Mood Centre suggests it can. Researchers compared two groups of people with major depression – one had help from a dietitian to eat better (less processed food and more olive oil, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts and legumes) and the other group had social support. In a third of those in the diet group, depression went into remission, while just eight per cent of the other group had the same result, says Jacka.
‘A Mediterranean diet – particularly one that includes raw nuts – could reduce the risk of developing depression.’ Professor Felice Jacka