1257 GMT January 26, 2020
“Better diet quality, no matter which way you measure it, is associated with an approximate 30 percent reduction in the risk for depression,” said Felice Jacka, PhD, director of the Food and Mood Center at Deakin University in Australia and president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research. She’s also written a book on the subject, ‘Brain Changer: The Good Mental Health Diet’, webmd.com reported.
In September, an analysis of 26 previous studies found that following a Mediterranean diet full of green vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, olive oil, psychiatry, and seafood could ease symptoms of depression. It also found that people who ate more meat, dairy, and processed foods had a higher risk of becoming depressed. Of the 26 studies included, only a handful showed no relation between diet and mental health. And a small randomized controlled trial, published a few weeks ago, found that college students with symptoms of depression saw their mood improve in just three weeks on a similar diet. That type of trial is considered the ‘gold standard’ among researchers.
But before you toss your antidepressant and run to the nearest farmers market: None of this research suggests that diet alone can cure or prevent depression. The idea is that improving your diet gives you a strong foundation for healing, no matter what other treatments you may try.
“You start talking about zucchini, and people think it means they should stop taking Zoloft,” said Drew Ramsey, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and founder of the Brain Food Clinic in New York City. “Because of stigma, people prefer not to be taking medication. They make this leap that everything can be changed with foods. Medication should be discussed with a professional.”
Scientists have been examining the effects of nutrients on mental health for decades, but the idea that your diet matters more is relatively new. “We know on a common-sense level that our brains need nourishment,” said Ramsey. “And we increasingly understand that the American diet is horrible for our health, and horrible for our mental health.”
He and a colleague came up with what they call the Antidepressant Food Score, based on nutrients that have antidepressant qualities. Foods that contain the highest amounts of these nutrients include bivalves like oysters and clams, as well as leafy greens like watercress and spinach. “But individual foods aren’t the intention,” Ramsey said. He also prescribes a rainbow of vegetables, seafood, nuts, seeds, beans, and fermented foods. Yes, it’s similar to the Mediterranean diet.
Jennie McCarthy, an attorney in New York, took Ramsey’s e-course ‘Eat to Beat Depression’ two years ago. With a history of bipolar disorder and type 2 diabetes in her family, she wanted to do what she could to preserve her health. Since taking the course, she’s tried to follow his recommendations.
A typical day for her includes greens at all three meals; fish like salmon or cod; beans; red, orange, or yellow vegetables; fruit; nuts; plus a probiotic supplement and fish oil capsules. It’s not the easiest plan for socializing, but McCarthy knows that perfection isn’t the goal. So she’ll join friends for a night out, expecting to feel sluggish the next day — a food hangover.
“I notice a huge difference in my energy level, and tolerance for things going on at work, when I’m on track,” McCarthy said. “This year, I haven’t had a bout of the blues, haven’t needed a mental health day. I don’t have the anger, stress, anxiety.”
Not everybody is sold on the merits of the Mediterranean diet for fighting depression, or at least not for depression that hasn’t responded to other treatments.
Chris Palmer, MD, is director of the Department of Postgraduate and Continuing Education at McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA, and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “The evidence that we can effectively treat patients with clinical depression with dietary intervention is marginal at best,” he said. “Part of it is that these are really difficult things to study, because you can tell a patient to eat more fruits and vegetables, eat less junk food, but actually understanding what they're eating is almost impossible — we can’t know what they really did.”
That problem comes up frequently with studies that examine how diet affects human health: Because it may take years to see the impact, you can’t do these studies under controlled, laboratory conditions. Instead, researchers rely on people’s reports of what they ate, which might be flawed or biased. (For instance, if you ate a whole box of cookies while in a diet study, you may be too embarrassed to mention it.)
Palmer’s research focuses on how a ketogenic diet — one with large amounts of healthy fat, moderate amounts of protein, and very few carbohydrates — changes the energy source for brain cells. He said this may help patients with treatment-resistant depression. And unlike the broader Mediterranean plan, a ketogenic diet produces markers that can be measured in urine.