Depression, which nearly everyone will have to face in their life, has been shown to correlate with diet. In a recent study published in BMC Medicine, it was found that a healthy diet effectively treats depression better than a social support program.
Depression is a major mental health problem that affects nearly all people; it can be acute or chronic, that is, short or long-lasting. Chronic depression most often requires clinical treatment to overcome or live with. Current treatments involve pharmacological and psychotherapeutic approaches. Many people with depression take medication to treat or aid in the treatment of their depression. Meta-analysis of many studies has shown an association between diet and mental health, specifically an “unhealthy” diet and poor mental health. An unhealthy diet, in this case, refers to one that is low in dietary fibre, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables and a high intake of sweet foods, salty foods, and processed meats. In turn, a healthy diet can be illustrated by the Mediterranean diet; a larger quantity of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins (such as fish), whole grains and healthy fats, like olive oil.
A study recently published in BMC Medicine set out to examine, in a clinical trial, the effect of diet on depression. Patients participating in the study all were over the age of 18, had depression or a major depressive episode based on the DSM-IV and the Montgomery-Åsberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS), and had a poor diet (a low score on the Dietary Screening Tool). Patients were excluded from the study if they had conflicting mental disorders, were unable to follow the diet for a variety of reasons (one being pregnancy), and other confounding factors. Altogether there were 67 participants at the beginning of the study: 33 were assigned to the intervention group (the diet group) and 34 were assigned to the control group. The control group was enrolled in a social support program otherwise known as a “befriending” program, in which the participants met with individuals to discuss neutral topics or to play games (such as cards) on a regular basis. The diet group followed a Mediterranean diet with the help of seven individual dietary support sessions conducted by an Accredited Practising Dietician. The diet was allowed to be followed freely (without consumption limits), as the study was not concerned with weight loss or change in BMI. At the start of the study, a baseline measurement of depression was taken from the participants’ DSM-IV and MADRS scores. After the 12 weeks, the full course of the study, 31 participants remained in the diet group and 25 in the control or social support group, due to individuals dropping out. The results showed that the diet group had significantly greater improvement on the MADRS than the social support group.
Dietary improvement, in this study, proved to be a more effective treatment for depression than the social support program. To reiterate, changing to a healthy diet effectively treats depression better than befriending, according to this study. Diet is a non-medicinal and somewhat easy to administer as a treatment. While healthy foods can be expensive, the participants in this study did not end up spending a significant amount more on the Mediterranean diet than they did on their previous, less healthy diet. That is not to say that this study was not without its limitations. The sample size was quite small. There was a greater number of dropouts in the social support program as opposed to the diet program which might be due to depression itself—a depressed individual might find it easier to manage tasks related to diet than social tasks. Either way, hopefully, there will be more clinical trials examining the effect of diet on depression and mental health in general, as this study was very preliminary.
Written By: Brian Jones