HEALTH SENTINEL: Could changing your diet lessen depression?

Antidepressant use has skyrocketed, with one in nine American adults reporting they took an antidepressant in the past month, federal data show. A study just published in Nutritional Neuroscience found individuals who adhered to a Mediterranean diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, nuts, legumes and olive oil, supplemented with fish oil, had a significant reduction in depression symptoms. (Photo by Jennifer L. Boen for
Kelly O'Hara, a registered dietitian with Lutheran Weight Management. (Courtesy photo)

When it comes to antidepressants, usage among Americans soared by 65 percent between 1999 and 2014, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Depression is real, and major depressive disorder (MDD) goes beyond normal human experiences of sadness. It negatively affects a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home, according to the American Psychiatric Association. A 2013 World Health Organization report ranked MDD as the second-highest cause of years of life lost due to disability.

What if changing your diet could lessen depression? The results of a study, published in December in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience, point to just that.

Researchers at the University of South Australia found a 45 percent reduction in severity of depression in individuals who ate a Mediterranean diet supplemented with fish oil compared to those who ate a regular diet.

The study is one of the first to show that healthy dietary changes correlate with improved mental health in people with depression. It also brings to reality the adage: Food is medicine.

“Diet is absolutely a huge part of our wellness,” said Kelly O’Hara, a registered dietitian with Lutheran Weight Management. “The Mediterranean diet is very anti-inflammatory. Inflammation has a huge effect on hormones and can drive down serotonin,” a neurotransmitter strongly associated with mood.

When serotonin levels are low, we’re more depressed; when they’re high, we’re happier, less critical and more productive overall, numerous studies show.

While many people, particularly this time of year, are focused on calorie control and losing weight, eating a diet consisting of a wide array of vegetables plus legumes, nuts, whole grains, fruits and fish, with reduced red meat, animal fats and processed foods, will not only trim the waistline but also lift our mood.

“In these winter months, coming off the holidays, your good intentions might have slid a little bit,” O’Hara said.

“The eating habits can change over the holidays. Pair that with not exercising,” O’Hara added, and it’s a recipe for weight gain as well as depressive symptoms.

The Australian study recruited 152 adults, ages 18 to 65, with depression. Participants were randomly divided into two groups. One group met every two weeks for a social gathering during which they played games, discussed books and ate snacks such as cookies, cheeses and dips and drank tea, coffee and juice.

The second group, the Mediterranean, or Med diet, group, initially participated in a nutrition education class, then met biweekly for cooking workshops in a university commercial kitchen. Recipes given focused on simple, affordable, Mediterranean-style dietary principles.

Each person in the Med diet group also was provided the ingredients to make the recipes at home as well as additional vegetables, fruits, legumes, tuna, nuts and extra virgin olive oil. They were also given a Web link to additional Med diet resources. Individuals in this group were given fish oil supplements (1,100 mg) to take at home.

Multiple depression scales were given to both groups at three and six months but not at the start of the study. However, 38 percent of participants had a medical diagnosis of depression at the outset and 36 percent were taking anti-depressants. For the remainder of participants, depression was self-reported, which some who’ve reviewed the protocols say is a weakness of the study.

When feeling depressed, connecting with other people, getting out of the house and socializing can be very beneficial. In this study, both the Med diet and social groups reported significantly improved mental health on all outcome measures, with the social group’s depression scores improving 27 percent compared to the Med diet’s group’s 45 percent improvement.

The foods in a Mediterranean diet are very high in antioxidants, O’Hara said. Antioxidants inhibit or delay cellular damage caused by the free radicals.

It’s really important with fruits and vegetables to eat a variety of color, she said. Comfort foods high in carbs are what we often turn to this time of year, but O’Hara cautioned, “Our brains like the way sugar and carbs feel. It’s an instant high, but with that high comes a low.

“Food is more than filling our stomachs,” O’Hara tells patients. “One hundred percent, diet can impact our health, including mental health.”

Jennifer L. Boen is a freelance writer in Fort Wayne who writes frequently about health and medicine. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.

Editors note: There was a typographical error in this story and headline when it appeared in the January 17 print edition of The News-Sentinel. It has been corrected online.