Could a Healthy Diet Help Major Depression?

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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.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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