The Mediterranean diet is well known for its physical health benefits and it is now being hailed as the latest weapon in tackling mental health problems.
The diet improved the mood of about a third of participants
Researchers say it highlights the need for better diet support for patients
But they warn the diet should not replace traditional treatments
Researchers at Deakin University have found the diet can help those suffering from severe depression.
They put dozens of patients with major depressive disorders on a Mediterranean-style diet rich in protein, legumes, fresh fruit and vegetables, olive oil and nuts.
After 12 weeks of healthy eating, researchers said one third of the participants reported a significant improvement in their mood and symptoms.
The results of the study were published today in the international journal BMC Medicine.
Professor Felice Jacka, director of Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre, said the Mediterranean diet had been credited with improving cardiovascular health, reducing the risk of diabetes and increasing longevity.
“We already know that diet has a very potent impact on the biological aspects of our body that affect depression risks,” she said.
“The immune system, brain plasticity, and gut microbiota seem to be central not just to our physical health, but also our mental health.
“And diet, of course, is the main factor that affects the gut microbiota.”
Professor Jacka randomly selected 31 participants to embrace the Mediterranean diet and reduce their intake of sweets, refined cereals, fried food and sugary drinks.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
Based on the eating habits of people living in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece
It’s rich in olive oil, vegetables, fresh fruit, wholegrains, nuts and legumes
Moderate intake of fish, poultry, dairy products and red wine
Low intake of pasta, red meat, and sugar
It’s been shown to lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer
Another 25 participants received social support which involved weekly visits from researchers.
Only 8 per cent of those in the social support group showed improvement in their symptoms.
One of the participants who changed her diet, Sarah Keeble, described the program as life changing.
“I felt clearer in my mind. I felt balanced. I felt happier. I actually had a lot more energy. I felt I could really kick this in the butt,” she said.
“It’s not going to cure depression, but you can certainly handle it very well.”
Ms Keeble has continued the Mediterranean diet after finishing the program and is now doing a diploma in health science.
“I got so motivated because I felt so much better, better than I had in so long,” she said.
“I’d like to help people in this situation where they think there’s no hope.”
Diet not a replacement for traditional treatments
Professor Jacka said people suffering from depression should not replace therapy and drug treatments with the Mediterranean diet.
What the study participants ate:
Per day: Six servings of vegetables, five servings of wholegrains, three servings of fruit, Two servings of unsweetened dairy, one serving of raw, unsalted nuts, and three tablespoons of olive oil
Per week: three servings of lean red meat, two servings of chicken, up to six eggs, and at least two servings of fish
Extras: no more than three servings per week of sweets, refined cereal, fried food, fast food and soft drink
Alcohol: no more than two glasses of red wine a day, only with dinner
“Most of the people in our study were receiving psychotherapy or pharmacology treatment. But it’s something that supports any other interventions designed to help depression,” she said.
Professor Jacka would like to see dietitian support made available to those experiencing depression.
“It’s not a stretch to consider that people coming to a doctor with depression might have a referral to a clinical dietician,” she said.
“Weight loss is not a factor in this particular case, but we hope we’ll help to change the public’s ideas of why it’s important to eat well – both from a prevention and a treatment point of view.”