New Study Reveals This Particular Diet Can Help Lessen Depression Symptoms

By Sophia Harris
|
May 18, 2022
people enjoying a dinner party with fresh whole foods

Depression is a serious (and seriously common) mental health condition, and the pandemic isolation years haven’t been kind to anyone who’s prone to depression, either. In fact, new studies are claiming that mental health problems around the world were reported at a rate of 7x higher during and after the pandemic. 

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Mental health disorders can have multiple causes and can be difficult to treat, since not everyone responds to the first-line interventions. However, new and exciting research is demonstrating a very promising correlation between a healthy diet and improved mental health. 

Australian researchers at the University of Technology Sydney performed a randomized control trial for 12 weeks to assess how the Mediterranean diet would impact depression symptoms in young men. A Mediterranean diet focuses on fruits and vegetables, oily fish, lean meats, healthy fats, and whole grains. Processed food, alcohol, red meat, and sugar are kept very low, if present at all. 

Throughout the course of the trial, many of the young men were willing (even eager) to change their diet. Those who were assigned a Mediterranean diet worked with a nutritionist to move away from their original diets and incorporate more “Mediterranean-friendly” foods. 

The results were incredible: young men who adhered to a Mediterranean diet as prescribed experienced a significant boost in mental health, and many saw their depression symptoms subside — without any other intervention aside from the diet change. 

Researchers in the study wanted the clinical trial to contribute to a new and emerging field called “nutritional psychiatry,” which explores the direct impact that foods and nutrients have on our moods, brains, and overall mental well-being. 

Here’s even better news about the study participants: Once the trial ended, most of the participants were eager to stay on the Mediterranean diet because they felt great. It doesn’t hurt that the Mediterranean diet is tasty and relatively easy to adhere to — this makes an important point about complying with a new diet, since the longer you stick with healthy eating, the better the results will be. 

Can food really impact my mood that much? 

The short answer is yes — and the reason is your gut’s connection to the brain. According to university health researchers, your gut health is absolutely essential to your brain’s optimal function. For example, 90% of your brain’s serotonin, a brain chemical that makes us feel happy, is created in your gut by your own microbes. 

The brain and the gut are connected by the vagus nerve, which is considered the “highway” between the two — or the gut-brain axis. Anxiety and depression have been linked to poor gut health, as have other conditions, like inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, diabetes, and cognitive problems. 

Whole foods, like those found in the Mediterranean diet, are much better for the gut (and mood) than processed food. This is because chemical additives and ultra-processed meals actually change our gut microbiome for the worse — especially if they contain lots of added sugars and hydrogenated fats. 

Every person’s microbiome is unique, and it’s determined, in part, by what you eat every single day. So even if your gut isn’t 100% right now, the foods you choose to eat can make a significant impact quickly. Nutritional psychiatry actually centers around this theory – that eating better will make you feel better, both mentally and physically. 

More good news: Improving your mental health with diet actually takes much less time than you’d think. The Mediterranean diet clinical trial participants saw results in just three months. 

How to eat for optimal mood 

Love the idea of changing your diet to help combat mental health symptoms? You don’t necessarily need to make any drastic changes all at once. There are several easy ways to start moving your diet towards the Mediterranean and getting your brain health on track. Here’s where we recommend starting: 

1. Eat the rainbow

Colorful plants contain many vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and healthy phytochemicals that keep your gut happy. Aim for at least two servings of fruit per day, and three servings of vegetables. Make sure you’re eating green, yellow, orange, red, and all colors in between to ensure a wide range of nutrients, vitamins, and even enzymes (which are great for your gut). Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is extremely helpful when trying to get your gut/brain health back on track, because fiber is essential for good digestion.

2. Sometimes swap beef for fatty fish 

Omega-3 fatty acids have long been recognized for boosting brain health — studies even show that these fatty acids can prevent and treat behavior and mood disorders. Researchers believe that most people are deficient in essential marine fatty acids, like DHA, which plays an important role in mental development and long-term mental health. Get your own DHA in daily with salmon, sardines, mackerel, oysters, and tuna. While grass-fed beef also has lots of health benefits, most Americans aren’t getting nearly enough seafood in their diet — the DGA recommends we eat seafood at least twice a week. So next time you have burger night, consider trying some mango jerk salmon burgers.

3. Healthy fats are your friend

An important component of the Mediterranean diet are healthy fats like avocados, nuts, olive oils, and seeds. These “good fats,” which are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, have been known to lower the risk of several diseases and reduce inflammation in your whole body. Plus, they’re delicious. Avocado goes with just about anything, and we can’t decide which nut butter is better, cashew or almond. Fat may have gotten a bad reputation in the early 2000s, but recent research aims to help educate people that fat is healthy, and adequate fat consumption actually helps lower sugar cravings. 

4. Kick your sugar habit

It’s no secret that refined sugar isn’t the best for your waistline, but did you know that sugar has been linked to worsened depression? Researchers have linked refined sugar consumption to poor long-term psychological health, meaning that we will probably feel much better mentally if we eat less of it. This doesn’t mean that dessert is off the table, though. You can still get your sweet fix: Chocolate and fruit can all still be delicious without too much (or any) added sugar. 

Read next: Our Favorite 5 Healthy Summer Desserts To Help You Cool Down

5. Whenever possible, choose unprocessed 

Because processed food is disastrous for the gut, they should be avoided — but that doesn’t mean you have to stop eating your favorite foods. Instead, try to recreate a whole-foods version. If you really love french fries, try a substitute like oven-baked fries with sea salt. Still delicious — and totally unprocessed. 

6. Add fermented, probiotic-rich foods to your diet

If you really want to earn some bonus points with your gut this week, incorporate some fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, or natto to your diet. These fermented foods are rich in probiotics, which contain “good bacteria” to help your gut feel great and balance “bad bacteria.” Probiotics have also been linked to an improved mood state, because of the role our gut plays in brain chemical production. The gut has even been called the “second brain” because it produces so many of the same chemicals, like serotonin and dopamine.

Read next: Foods That Help with Anxiety: 10 Recipes Containing Anxiety-Busting Ingredients

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