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Better food, better mood: new research shows link between diet and depression

Research 10 Feb 2017
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A team of researchers from Melbourne's Deakin University has proved that eating a healthy diet can help improve the mood of people suffering from major depression.

This preliminary research – which used a modified version of the Mediterranean diet, incorporating Australian dietary guidelines – provides evidence that changing what you eat really can change how you feel, in body and mind.

This research isn't the first to prove the benefits of a healthful diet, but Jean Hailes naturopath Sandra Villella says it is a good reminder to think about the type of food you consume and how it may affect your mood.

"We know this diet plays a role in reducing the risk of cardiovascular (heart) disease and metabolic syndrome, and in fact depression shares several mechanisms that are similar to these diseases," says Sandra.

Previous observational studies suggest that diets high in plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and wholegrains, and lean proteins including fish, are associated with reduced risk for depression, while diets that include more processed food and sugary foods are associated with an increased risk of depression.

Deakin University's three-month trial was a small, randomised controlled trial (RCT) involving more than 50 participants, previously diagnosed with major depressive disorders. The participants were randomly split into two groups – a diet group and a social support group. Any participant who was taking prescribed antidepressants or was under the care of a psychotherapist continued their treatment throughout.

One group ate the modified Mediterranean diet, rich in wholegrains, legumes, unsweetened dairy products, fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, herbs and olive oil. They also received seven individual dietary advice sessions with a dietitian.

What did the diet group eat?

  • 5-8 servings of wholegrains per day
  • 6 vegetables per day
  • 3 fruit per day
  • 1 serve of raw and unsalted nuts per day
  • 2-3 serves of low-fat unsweetened dairy foods
  • 3-4 serves of legumes per week
  • At least 2 serves of fish per week
  • 3-4 serves of lean red meat per week
  • 2-3 serves of chicken per week
  • Up to 6 eggs per week
  • 3 tablespoons of olive oil per day

Extras: no more than three servings per week of sweets, refined cereal, fried food, fast food and soft drink

Alcohol: no more than two glasses of red wine a day, only with dinner (other alcohol was included as an 'extra' food)

The other group of participants didn't change their diet, but instead received social support or befriending through weekly visits by researchers. This involved discussions about topics such as sport, news or music, or board games if conversation proved difficult. The aim was to keep the participants engaged and positive.

At the end of the 12-week trial, one in three people in the modified diet group reported an improvement in mood, compared with less than one in 10 of the other group. Neither group saw any change in weight, BMI or physical activity levels. The only differences between the two groups was that the social support group had a reduction in their total polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Sandra Villella says research suggests there could be several reasons why this modified Mediterranean diet may be useful for depression.

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"The diet is also high in B vitamins, found in wholegrains, which are important in the making of our brain chemicals that affect mood, including serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine."

Sandra believes this diet is practical for everyday women. "This research suggests that changing diet is possible for people suffering with clinical depression, despite the fatigue and lack of motivation that is seen in depression," she says.

The modified diet also proved more affordable. Researchers reported that the healthful diet cost participants $112 per week, $26 less than the $138 per week diet that they were previously eating.

So what else is in the Mediterranean diet and why is it good for you? Read more about this healthy diet.

Sandra recommends the following easy recipes, which are ideal for anyone wanting to get the health benefits of Mediterranean food in their daily life. Some recipes from the Jean Hailes Kitchen are included:

Try one choice from each meal time

Breakfast:

  • Oats, yoghurt (try sheep's yoghurt), fruits and seeds (think Bircher muesli)
  • Yoghurt-based smoothie with ground seeds
  • Poached egg on wholegrain toast and avocado with tomato and/or spinach.

Lunch:

  • Canned fish and salad
  • 4-bean mix with salad vegetables and olive oil
  • Frittata
  • Rice and vegetable salad
  • Grilled chicken and salad.

Dinner (with optional glass of red wine):

Snacks:

  • Yoghurt
  • Small handful of fresh nuts (especially walnuts)
  • Piece of fruit
  • Tzatziki and vegetables
  • Instead of sugary sweets, try our raw cacao ginger balls.