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For those with depression, counseling about healthier foods — along with increased consumption of Mediterranean-type foods — may help relieve symptoms, a new study suggests.
Though the study is small, it did have striking results: Those who got dietary counseling were five times as likely to recover compared to those who got social support, according to the report published this week in BMC Medicine.
The Australian researchers suspect that the healthier diet might work by lowering inflammation all over the body and by protecting brain proteins that may help defend against depression.
“If we don’t eat enough nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, this can lead to insufficiencies in nutrients, antioxidants and fiber and this has a detrimental impact on our immune system,” said the study’s lead author, Felice Jacka, a professor of nutritional and epidemiological psychiatry and director of the Food and Mood Center at Deakin University in Australia.
For the new study, Jacka and her colleagues randomly assigned 67 patients suffering from a major depressive episode to receive seven one-hour meetings with a clinical dietitian, who promoted the Mediterranean diet, or seven one-hour “social support” sessions.
The volunteers chosen to participate in the study all had unhealthy diets at the outset.
Those who were in the dietary counseling group were encouraged to switch to a Mediterranean diet, in other words, one that was rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, emphasized consumption of nuts, fish, lean red meats and olive oil. They kept food diaries and throughout the study showed "significant improvements" in following a healthier diet.
Those who were in the “social support” group also met with a researcher who “discussed neutral topics of interest to the participant, such as sport, news or music, or in cases where participants found conversation difficult, engaging in alternate activities such as cards or board games, with the intention of keeping the participant engaged and positive.”
By the end of the 12-week study, nearly a third of those who got dietary counseling (10 out of 33) were in remission as compared to just 8 percent of those who got social support (2 out of 34).
While acknowledging that the study was smaller than Jacka had originally planned for, she said that the findings were so strong, “the results were highly statistically significant. In fact, the effect size, which is a measure of the extent of the difference between the two groups on their depression symptoms at the end of the study, was far larger than what is normally seen in trials of either antidepressants or psychotherapy.”
While cautioning that the new research should be considered a pilot study because of the small number of patients, an expert unaffiliated with the new research suggested that it provides “a strategy to consider.”
“You might want to combine it with another known effective strategy,” said Sarah Stahl, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “In combination you might see a stronger effect.”
The new research might be a sign of things to come, Stahl said. “I think the field of nutritional psychiatry, which looks at the effects of nutrients and amino acids on the brain and mood may be taking off in the next 10 years or so.”