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Last week was World Mental Health Day – this is an incredibly important day, considering 1 in 5 Australian’s are affected by mental illness. Unfortunately many people do not seek help, as a result of the stigma attached to mental illness. This means, days like World Mental Health Day, are a time to shine a light on mental health and create more awareness, to help break down the stigma.

Sticking to the same theme, if you are not yourself affected by mental health, use this awareness to think about ways in which you can support others with mental illness.

As a Nutritionist and chef, I feel very passionate about how food can improve mood and poor mental health. A very timely new study reported last week has provided further evidence on how a healthy diet, can reduce symptoms of depression, and this study specifically looked at young adults.

The researchers noted that adolescence and young adulthood are periods when there is increased risk of depression and also a time when people establish their diet, which will likely carry them into adulthood. This means looking at ways to support this age group through mental illness is important.

What we already know is – research has strongly linked a diet high in processed foods, saturated fats and refined sugar with an increased risk of depression.

However, diet is a modifiable risk factor for depression and most notably, something within reach for all of us and a healthy diet does not only have a positive impact on mental health but all areas of health.

The aim of this Australian study was to see if a brief, 3-week diet intervention can improve symptoms of depression and whether compliance with the diet would be associated with improvement in depression symptoms. The study involved around 76 participants aged between 17-35 with elevated depression symptoms.

Diet Intervention

Participants in the dietary intervention group were asked to decrease refined carbohydrates, sugar, fatty or processed meats and soft drinks. For example, foods with more than 10g sugar per 100g including soft drinks, chocolates, sweets and fried takeaway foods.

Based off the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating and the Mediterranean diet, participants were also asked to increase intake of:
Vegetables (5 serves per day)
Fruit (2-3 serves per day)
Wholegrain cereals (3 serves per day)
Protein (lean meat, poultry, eggs, tofu and legumes, 3 serves per day)
Unsweetened diary (3 serves per day)
Fish (3 serves per week)
Nuts and seeds (3 tbsp. per day)
Olive oil (2 tbsp. per day)
Spices (cinnamon, turmeric, 1 tsp. most days)

Diet compliance was monitored and there was a significant increase in consumption of the recommended foods over the 3 weeks in the intervention group. There was also a significant decrease in consumption of foods high in saturated fats and refined sugars.

Participants, who were not eating the prescribed diet, were asked to just continue their usual diet for 3 weeks.

While this study was relatively brief, the sample size was not extensive and the participants were uni students which means application to the general public needs to be confirmed, the results show further support for dietary modification, to improve symptoms of depression, specifically:

  • Participants eating the prescribed diet reported improved symptoms of depression;
  • Reduction in processed foods contributed the most benefit on improvement in depression symptoms – therefore along with eating more healthy foods, processed foods need to be reduced for the best outcomes; and
  • At 3 month follow up, 33 participants could be contacted and improvements in depression symptoms had been maintained along with some form of dietary compliance.

Overall, this study adds to the current body of evidence recommending adherence to a mediterranean-esk diet rich in plants, lean protein, legumes, nuts/seeds and olive oil for improving depression and overall mental wellbeing.

The biggest takeaway message from this study is that a way to support your own children or young loved ones with depression or other mental health concerns, is to encourage them to eat a healthy diet inclusive of the wholefoods above, which can carry them into adulthood, for life!