Is a Healthy Diet the Best Prescription for Depression?

by | Updated: April 5th, 2017 | Read time: 4 minutes

Is a healthy diet an antidepressant? A new study by researchers in Australia indicates that a healthy diet can lift the moods of people diagnosed with moderate to severe depression.

Smiling Woman Cutting Loaf of Bread as Part of a Healthy Diet to Fight Depression | Vitacost.com/blog

In the 12-week study, researchers split 67 depressed people into two groups: one that received dietary support and another that received social support. Before the experiment, all of the participants had been eating an unhealthy diet — heavy on sweets, processed meats and salty snacks, and light on dietary fiber, lean protein, fruit and vegetables. The dietary counseling, overseen by a clinical dietitian, included emphasis on consuming what the researchers termed a modified Mediterranean diet.

At the end of the 12-week trial, the people in the dietary support group exhibited “significantly greater improvement” in their depression symptoms than those in the social support group did, the researchers reported.

The researchers concluded that “dietary improvement may provide an efficacious and accessible treatment strategy” for managing depression.

The findings of the Australian study, published in the journal BMC Medicine, dovetail with the conclusion of a Spanish study released in 2015. The earlier study, also appearing in BMC Medicine, suggested that following a Mediterranean diet or similar eating plan — a diet chock-full of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts, and low in processed meats — could lower the risk of depression.

So, does all this mean a healthy diet should be encouraged for someone coping with depression? Yes, experts say, but there’s a caveat: Evidence is growing that high-quality food can ease symptoms of depression and possibly even prevent it, but there’s no medical or scientific proof that a healthy diet can cure the mental disorder.

Certified nutritionist Hartje Andresen says that if depression is so pervasive that it’s interfering with your work, daily activities, sleep and appetite, it’s critical to seek medical advice from a doctor or psychiatrist. In many cases, therapy and medication are prescribed for treatment of depression.

Still, a healthy diet can be coupled with therapy and medication as part of a holistic approach to combating depression, according to Andresen.

In the Australian study, researchers promoted these food groups for people with depression:

  • Whole grains — Five to eight servings per day. Recommendations include steel-cut oats and brown rice.
  • Vegetables — Six servings per day. Recommendations include spinach, kale, romaine lettuce, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, beets, asparagus, spinach and kale.
  • Fruits — Three servings per day. Recommendations include berries, avocados and tomatoes. (Yes, avocados and tomatoes technically are fruits.)
  • Legumes — Three to four servings per week. Recommendations include garbanzo beans, lentils and peas.
  • Low-fat and unsweetened dairy foods — Two to three servings per day. Recommendations include yogurt and low-fat cheese.
  • Raw and unsalted nuts — One serving per day. Walnuts are highly recommended.
  • Fish — At least two servings per week. Recommendations include salmon, mackerel and sardines.
  • Lean red meats — Three to four servings per week. Recommendations include grass-fed meats like bison, ostrich, venison and beef.
  • Chicken — Two to three servings per week.
  • Eggs — Up to six servings per week.
  • Olive oil — 3 tablespoons per day.

Meanwhile, the researchers encouraged less consumption of sweets, refined cereals, fried food, fast food, processed meats and sugary drinks.

Keep in mind that this isn’t a set-in-stone menu for battling depression. If you’re dealing with depression, any substantial dietary changes should be made in consultation with a healthcare professional and perhaps a nutrition specialist, experts say.

Nutritional scientist Keith Kantor suggests a healthy diet for someone who’s been diagnosed with depression should feature omega-3 fatty acids, healthy fats, antioxidants, fiber, B vitamins and vitamin D. In some form, all of these can be found in the food groups advocated by the Australian researchers.

“The gut-brain connection is real, and even science is now proving that we essentially are what we eat,” says Karen Daggett Austin, a certified health coach and integrative nutrition consultant. “If we are depressed, changing our diet to include a few foods shown to support excellent brain health is paramount.”

Elizabeth Gavino, a certified integrative nutrition health coach and author of “Balanced Life, Happy Life: 13 Weeks to Creating a Happier You,” firmly believes in the power of food to boost brain health. She says she warded off depression by eating a diet made up mostly of high-quality proteins; healthy fats, such as coconut oil and olive oil; and green, leafy vegetables.

One thing Gavino added to that diet was turmeric root, which boasts anti-inflammatory properties. Depression has been linked to chronic inflammation in the body. As such, Austin, the certified health coach and integrative nutrition consultant, recommends loading up on anti-inflammatory foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as avocados, cold-pressed organic coconut oil, raw nuts and grass-fed meats.

“Because depression has been shown to be connected to chronic inflammation in the body, unbalanced gut flora and sometimes a deficiency in vitamin D, adding foods and lifestyle tweaks to correct these issues could be the answer for many people,” Austin says.