Depression has many origins: genetic, triggered by a specific event or circumstance or lifestyle choices. But it is a disease of the brain, and researchers find that ensuring it receives the proper nutrients is a way to prevent and treat depression. In the future patients experiencing depression may not only be referenced to a therapist, but a nutritionist as well. It has long been understood that fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean, unprocessed proteins are the best foods for our daily diet, but only over the last 10 years or so have studies begun to show that healthy eating impacts not only our physical health, but our mental health as well. And an unhealthy diet—high in trans fats, sugar and processed and refined foods—increases risk for depression, especially in children and teens because it deprives the brain of the nutrients it needs, and breeds bad bacteria in the gut, which impacts our mental and physical health.
A trial conducted by epidemiologist Felice Jacka of Deakin University in Australia, set out to measure the therapeutic impact of a healthy diet. The study consisted of 67 subjects with depression, some of whom were receiving psychotherapy, some of whom were taking antidepressants and some with both. Half were given nutritional counseling, the other half were given one-on-one social support, someone to keep them company and engage in social activities with- known to help people with depression. After 12 weeks, the group that changed their diet felt significantly happier than the group that received additional companionship. The study was published in January 2017 in BMC Medicine. Prof. Jacka explains,
Whole (unprocessed) diets higher in plant foods, healthy forms of protein and fats are consistently associated with better mental health outcomes. These diets are also high in fiber, which is essential for gut microbiota. We’re increasingly understanding that the gut is really the driver of health, including mental health, so keeping fiber intake high through the consumption of plant foods is very important.”
A second study from the University of Konstanz in Germany drew similar conclusions, finding that consuming vegetables led to a higher level of happiness over time than sugar or unhealthy food induces in the moment. In a study with 14 different food categories, eating vegetables “contributed the largest share to eating happiness” measured over eight days. And on average, sweets only provided “induced eating happiness” in comparison to an overall healthy diet. “Thus, the findings support the notion that fruit and vegetable consumption has beneficial effects on different indicators of well-being, such as happiness or general life satisfaction, across a broad range of time spans,” writes the Department of Psychology from the University of Konstanz.
So what should we eat? Research suggests a Mediterranean-style diet made up of fruits, vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, yogurt and cheese, nuts, whole grains, seafood and lean red meat, and eliminate fried and processed foods. The diet provides the nutrition our brain needs and supports good bacteria in the gut.