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Could a Healthy Diet Help Major Depression?

Science says maybe.

02.02.17
replacing sugar diet man repeller 3

A new clinical trial out of Deakin University in Australia suggests dietary improvements may be an effective treatment for major depression. Granted, the trial was small — only 67 participants — but it’s the first of its kind. “We’ve known for some time that there is a clear association between the quality of people’s diets and their risk for depression,” Professor Felicia Jacka told Medical News Today. She’s the Director of Deakin’s Food and Mood Centre. “However, this is the first randomized controlled trial to directly test whether improving diet quality can actually treat clinical depression.”

Of the 67 participants, all diagnosed with major depression, 34 received what they called “social support” over the three-month trial and 33 received “dietary intervention.” Social support “consists of trained personnel discussing neutral topics of interest to the participant” (per BMC Medical). This sounds…mild, to say the least, but it’s been proven in past trials to help alleviate symptoms of depression and is often used as a control in these kinds of studies. In contrast, dietary intervention consisted of a nutritionist giving patients guidance on how to incorporate more “vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, fish, lean red meats, olive oil and nuts” into their diets and cut out unhealthy stuff like sugar and fried and processed foods. Both groups received intervention for the same amount of time: seven hour-long sessions.

At the end of the study, 33% of those who changed up their diets were in remission from major depression, compared to 8% of those who’d received social support. This difference was dubbed statistically significant and introduces the “new possibility of adding clinical dietitians to mental health care teams and making dietitian support available to those experiencing depression.” It’s not huge, but it’s something.

Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S. Mental health advocates have been fighting for years to educate the public about mental illness, particularly when it comes to its acknowledgment as a real disease. The social stigma around depression, in particular, has been a focus. See: Bustle’s “8 Reasons The Stigma About Depression Needs To End, Because It’s A Disease, Not A Choice.”

The idea that eating veggies might pull depressed people into remission could be construed as fuel for the wrong side of the argument. But such an assertion would be diminutive and perhaps undersell the findings. For one, the treatment of depression is wrought with complexity. A cursory glance at this inconclusive study on the efficacy of anti-depressants — which, “at a cost of $35,000,000, is the most costly clinical trial of antidepressants ever conducted” — should confirm as much. No one ought to claim this is simple.

Diet is now, more than ever, considered a major indicator of health. Just look at the findings on sugar as they pertain to disease and life longevity (it’s not good). This trial confirms what many of us are increasingly coming to terms with: What we eat is more than a lifestyle choice that leads to a thinner frame or more energy at 2 p.m. It’s sometimes a matter of life and death.

Depression affects more than 15 million Americans. Its treatment clearly demands more research. I guess all we can hope for is that the findings continue to lead to a broader and deeper understanding of the life-altering disease.

Read about the link between birth control and depression or one women’s experience with postpartum depression.

Collage by Krista Anna Lewis.

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  • Lyla

    I eat terribly all the time because I am a bad adult, but I do believe this a bit. I go through stages where I decide to rot my insides only 2 meals a day and eat a smoothies or salad for 1 meal. It actually makes a difference. Unfortunately, not enough of a difference to convince me to give up my hot dog, spaghetti, cookie and popcorn habit.

    • Grace B

      popcorn for lyfe. butter, kettlecorn, chocolate drizzled, cinnamon sugar, pickle, white cheddar, etc. i love it in all it’s forms.

      • Haley Nahman

        same

  • Fiona

    I think it’s important to note that a lot of diseases can be improved/cured with diet changes. Functional medical practitioners and some limited qualitative data suggest things like type 2 diabetes or certain skin conditions can be cured with diet. We’re only beginning to understand how impactful diet is, so I don’t think it de-legitimizes or minimizes depression.

  • I do agree with these findings in addition to other help. I don’t believe that diet alone can improve Major Clinial Depression. For me, it’s all about an around healthy lifestyle; Proper sleeping habits (if you are able), regular exercise, + healthy diet.

  • Jamie

    I agree, It does make sense. We are basically walking combinations of chemical elements, if something is missing we tend to not function so well. It would stand to reason that increasing good minerals in our bodies would also have a positive impact on our minds.

  • Dayna

    I think healthy eating is definitely an important tool to managing depression but I’m not sure about it being an effective cure on its own. Personally, I’ve found that even when I’m keeping to a healthy routine (good food, exercise, socializing, etc) my depression can still creep back in. For some of us there’s definitely a chemical component thats outside of our control. That said, I’m still all in on smoothies.

    • Miss J

      I agree. Our diet can reverse most physical illnesses, or at least slow them down, but I’m not sure about the emotional part. What a proper healthy diet and lifestyle (exercise and enough sleep) can do for depression is help- combined with medication, over time, (usually this starts after 6 weeks) you start feeling a BIT better about yourself because you’re proud of yourself for a) sticking to the diet, and b) exercising, which releases endorphins, the “happy chemicals”. Once the new lifestyle of a healthy diet, exercise and sleeping patterns are in place, then dosages of anti depressants can be lowered.

    • snakehissken

      I wouldn’t say eating healthy and exercise makes me feel normal, but eating crap and not exercising sends me into this spiral where I end up barely functional.

      It feels to me like depressed to not depressed exists on a spectrum from -5 to +5 and healthy routine without antidepressants or antidepressants without healthy routine will only get me to -1 or 0. I need both to get above 0.

  • lateshift

    ok, I have an honest question: Being depressed can often cause someone to gain weight — and then, of course, gaining weight can make you feel more depressed (it’s a vicious cycle.) When someone’s overweight, sometimes losing even a modest amount of weight can really help you feel better about yourself…and if you lose enough weight, sometimes certain physical actions that may have been tough before get easier, which would give an even bigger boost. So I guess what I’m asking is…do we know for sure how much of this impact was due to the chemical composition of what people ate, as opposed to the mental impact of losing weight, which is what often happens when you eat diet-friendly foods?

    I realize that either way, an effective diet would be helping them feel better. But the headline says “a healthy diet,” not “losing weight,” which sort of implies there’s some molecular property or something in vegetables that helps correct chemical imbalances that cause depression. Just checking: we know that’s what did it…some compound in the food people consumed, not a mental boost from the weight loss that probably resulted from the new diet?

    • muireann

      I hear what you’re saying, but in this case the results in this study showed that the mental health effects were independent of BMI – so people felt better regardless of whether they lost/gained weight or not! It could be that the healthier diet caused changes in inflammation or oxidative stress in the body (which both might have a role in depression), or even that switching up your behaviour and routines by having to cook more, shop in a different way, think about your food in a more mindful way, also benefited people in this study.

  • Jolie

    Hmmm. For me, at least, gaining enough weight to warrant a diet just fuels/exacerbates my already-existing depression. When I don’t look the way I want to look, I don’t feel like myself and I get more depressed. Losing that weight has only ever made me feel confident, secure, myself, etc., so I think that’s why healthy eating temporarily cures my depression.

    Right now, I’m on my first REAL diet ever. My diets before were like “oh, I’ll just stop eating pasta everyday.” Now I have a whole plan and I’m hoping it works and, to be honest, really feeling like losing the weight and eating “clean” will get me back on track mentally as well as physically. But it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Not being able to eat certain FRUITS, even, is insane to me.

  • Fran

    I’m not surprised. Home cooking is the secret of life (and much more likely to lead to healthy eating, compared to eating fast food and pre-prepared foods, or even most good restaurant food). It can, however, be quite challenging to find the motivation to cook when you’re seriously depressed.

  • Haley, I love your writing, but please don’t write these sensational headlines. An alleviation of symptoms + remission are signs that a treatment is working, but it is NOT the same as a cure! There is no “cure” for depression, and probably won’t be for a long time. Behavioral activation (diet, exercise, pleasant activities) + psychotherapy + medication if necessary are all components of therapy that people are welcome to select pieces of along with their mental healthcare provider. But don’t mislead people who don’t have a high degree of scientific literacy into an incorrect interpretation of the findings!
    Sincerely, your loyal fan and a psychology PhD student

    • Max

      As someone with mental illness, I saw this headline and cringed. Thank you for putting into cogent words the thoughts that swarmed my mind as I read this.

    • Sophie Bower Johnston

      I signed up to disqus just to upvote this comment. Thank you, psychology PhD student.

    • Haley Nahman

      Hi! I’m so sorry for the poor choice of words — I am totally on your side! Switched it to “help.” Thanks for educating!

  • belle

    Science does NOT say maybe. As someone with chronic, lifelong depression, nobody has ever mentioned that there could be a “cure.” All you can do is manage it – even the study does not mention the word “cure,” and if you’re going to write about major depression you should understand the difference between ‘cure’ and ‘treat.’ One of the most dangerous parts of mental illness is the point when you are feeling well managed on your medication/lifestyle changes and decide you don’t need the pills anymore. Guess what? Most of the time, you do.

    I think it is very irresponsible to write something like this, especially implying that we are heading in the direction of diet being the fix-all for various ailments. I do believe in the power of a healthy, balanced diet to improve your life, but so much of that can be a mental/psychological boost. I think adding a nutritionist to a mental health care team is a fabulous idea, as is suggested in the conclusion of the study. As a depressed person, cooking a balanced meal is such an accomplishment sometimes that it almost doesn’t matter if you eat it or not! I’m not sure how much of this can be attributed to how balanced of a diet the subjects ate vs. how they felt about engaging in that type of self-care behavior (certainly a combination of both).

    Additionally, are we to assume that a clinical trial is reputable based on cost alone? That seems like a lazy qualifier. Overall, I am totally behind the idea of integrating healthy lifestyle choices as part of your ongoing treatment plan but this piece is a really poor interpretation and is honestly pretty disrespectful to those who have learned the very hard way that certain elements of depression are not within your control.

    • Haley Nahman

      Hi! Thank you for writing! Switched the word cure to “help.” You’re totally right! The whole reason I wrote this was to side-eye the conclusion, because I am often frustrated by people who claim depression comes down to lifestyle choices. I think I may not have gotten that across so thank you for weighing in/helping make the point I should have made!

  • CM

    Gut health is critical to proper formation of chemicals like serotonin, so a main factor here is likely proper digestion as it is the nutrients that come from a healthier diet.