The Food-Mood Connection

by Liz Robins
Food Mood

A balanced, whole-food diet may help prevent—and even play a role in treating—depression, recent research suggests. Food Mood

It’s common knowledge that diet affects physical health, but its link to mental health hasn’t been as clear—or even widely considered until recently, for that matter. Thanks to the burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry, that’s starting to change.

This relatively new discipline explores the relationship between diet and mental health. At the forefront of research in the field is Felice Jacka, professor of Nutritional and Epidemiological Psychiatry and director of the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. Jacka is also the founder and president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research and the author of Brain Changer (Macmillan, 2019), which covers the latest science on how diet affects anxiety and depression risk as well as brain health.

Through their research, Professor Jacka, her colleagues and others in the field have discovered an association between quality of diet and the risk of depression and anxiety disorders, some of the most prevalent and pressing health conditions of our time.

Depression Defined

Depression is a serious mental health condition that causes extended periods of sadness, low mood and loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed. The suffering that results can limit a depressed person’s ability to enjoy life and hinder his or her performance at work, home and beyond. Depression can also lead to suicide.

Globally, this mood disorder affects more than 300 million people of all ages and it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Various forms of therapy and antidepressant medications are effective for some, but not all, depressed patients. Not everyone has access to these treatments, either.

Encouraging Research

Considering the magnitude of the problem and the limitations of current treatments, the growing interest in food’s potential to combat depression comes as no surprise. The findings thus far are encouraging, although more large-scale intervention trials are needed to determine whether a specific diet actually causes changes in mood or is simply correlated with these changes.

(It’s also worth noting that this isn’t an either/or proposition; a healthy diet combined with the right medication and/or therapy may be effective for some patients. Consult with your doctor about the best treatment for you if you’ve been diagnosed with depression.)

Worldwide, healthier diets (rich in plant foods, fish and healthy oils) are associated with lower levels of depression, and unhealthy diets (higher in processed foods with added salt, sugar and fats) are associated with increased depression. Professor Jacka’s PhD study, published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 2010, showed that women eating diets rich in vegetables, fruit, unprocessed red meats, fish and whole grains were less likely to have depressive or anxiety disorders than women eating diets higher in processed and unhealthy foods (pizza, chips, hamburgers, white bread, sugar, processed meats, etc.).

Subsequent studies have also shown a correlation between a close-to-traditional Mediterranean diet and decreased risk of depression. The nutrient-dense Mediterranean diet is rich in olive oil, vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grains, nuts and legumes, but low in red meat, pasta and sugar. It also includes moderate amounts of fish, poultry, dairy products and red wine. Other recent research suggests that a Mediterranean diet including nuts might have the ability to actually prevent depression from developing in older adults (specifically, among those with diabetes).

Results from a 12-week Deakin University study conducted by Professor Jacka and her team suggest that improving diet may even be effective in treating clinical depression. Participants included adults with moderate to severe depression who had been eating an unhealthy diet. Those who switched to a high-quality Mediterranean diet, along with eating small servings of unprocessed red meat and receiving support from a clinical dietitian, experienced higher rates of remission than those who received social support but didn’t change their diet.

Future research should help clarify how the Mediterranean diet and other traditional whole-food diets affect mood. A few potential factors include high fiber content (which feeds “good” gut bacteria, some of which appear to impact mood via the gut-brain axis), healthy fats (linked to brain-health benefits) and antioxidant polyphenols (associated with decreased risk of depression and potential to alleviate depression in some studies).

Bonus Benefits

Specifics aside, there are plenty of reasons to adopt a Mediterranean diet for both mental and physical well-being. Beyond the potential mood-boosting effects, it has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, heart disease, cancer incidence, type 2 diabetes, neurodegenerative disease and overall mortality, notes Jacka in Brain Changer. This time-tested, whole-food diet is also delicious, affordable, and even better enjoyed in the company of family and friends—a bonus sure to boost anyone’s mood.

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