While there has been some research in the past suggesting a link between diet and depression, Professor Felice Jacka of Deakin University in Australia has completed a truly revolutionary study demonstrating that a healthy diet can actually treat existing depression.
The study involved 67 individuals with moderate to severe depression, most of whom were taking antidepressants and/or were in regular psychotherapy. All participants self-reported eating an unhealthy diet.
Half of the group were assigned to follow a specific dietary program for 12 weeks, including one-on-one counselling with a dietitian, while the other half’s diet remained unchanged.
The improved meal plan was based on a modified Mediterranean diet, which focused on whole, unprocessed foods including grains, fruits & vegetables, nuts, lean meats, fish and eggs, and discouraged sweets and processed or refined foods, also limiting alcohol and caffeine.
At the end of the 12 weeks, the dieting group showed markedly reduced symptoms of depression when compared to the other half of the group. In fact, a whopping 32% of participants experienced complete remission of their symptoms, and were no longer considered depressed.
Looking more closely at the specific dietary improvements, the key points of the diet plan were:
- very limited refined carbohydrates (sugar, flour, refined grains, etc.), which have been linked to damaged brain function, among other negative health effects;
- increased healthy fats and cholesterol, especially omega-3 fatty acids (eggs, fish, olive oil, animal fats), all of which the brain needs to function optimally;
- increased high quality protein sources (lean meats, fish, eggs), which are rich in iron, zinc, and vitamins B12 and D, all of which play a key role in the healthy functioning of the brain;
- a focus on whole, unprocessed foods in their natural state (whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds), all containing superior quantities of key vitamins, antioxidants and phytonutrients, such as magnesium, selenium, zinc, folate, and vitamins A, C and E, all of which play key roles in proper brain functioning.
Of special note is the fact that the healthy diet used in the study cost less than the standard unhealthy diet, meaning the potential benefits are within reach for all.
Looking at the additional health gains associated with such dietary improvements (including lowered risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancers), and suddenly giving up the coffee and junk food starts to feel pretty do-able. Finding others to help you in implementing these changes, such as a personal nutritionist, dietician or support group, will go a long way to easing the transition.
While a change in diet may not be the cure-all for depression, taking steps to reduce processed, refined foods and replace them with more whole, fresh foods as outlined above may just be a promising step in the right direction.
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