How to beat depression with the right diet
Feeling blue? There’s more to picking yourself up than reaching for a bar of chocolate. Scientific studies suggest that with the right diet you can even beat depression. Holly Williams reports
Tuesday, 10 November 2009
Feeling fresh: a diet rich in folate, found in fresh green vegetables, can help prevent depression and a shortage may contribute to psychiatric disorders
It will come as no surprise to hear that what we eat can have a big impact on how we feel, mentally as well as physically. After a hectic week, with too much fast food and hastily consumed coffee, or a couple of nights on the make-mine-a-double-and-a-doner diet, we may well feel what we’ve put into our bodies punishing our mind and mood.
But there are also foods that we might not even be aware of that are having a big impact on how we feel. And this can be more serious than just getting grouchy from overdoing it – there’s a wealth of research that suggests that certain types of food actually contain essential components for good mental health, with deficiencies potentially even worsening diagnosable mental disorders such as depression.
Two recent reports have hit headlines with the claim that a Mediterranean diet could protect against depression. With significantly fewer cases of depression in Mediterranean countries, researchers now think it may be the healthy diet, rich in fresh vegetables, whole grains and olive oil, that helps maintain mental health.
While depression is not caused by just one factor, eating well is a positive step in the right direction and in some cases deficiencies of certain vitamins, minerals, amino and fatty acids do seem to directly relate to our emotional wellbeing. “For somebody with mild depression, what they eat can really help. We can very easily keep people on track with good food,” says nutritionist Dr Caroline Longmore.
“Diet is one of the important factors for our mental health,” says Andrew McCulloch, the chief executive at the Mental Health Foundation. He suggests that the impact of diet on depression has been underestimated but that “there’s a lot of research going on now, and in the next 10 or 20 years we’ll understand a lot more.” In the meantime his advice is to “mix it up”. There is no “magic” ingredient or expensive supplement that cures depression, but McCulloch explains that if we eat a balanced, varied diet, we will naturally get all the mood-boosting proteins and fatty acids we need, as well as a full range of micronutrients.
Dr John Briffa also explains that our brains use a lot of energy, and need sustained fuelling from food – “just that one thing can make a difference to people who are prone to depression.” He also recommends eating a diet made up of foods as “natural and unprocessed as possible”.
This sound advice instinctively makes a lot of sense. But might there be a few easy changes or top foods we should ensure we munch on? Here are some of the diet choices and important ingredients that might help you eat yourself happy.
Follow a Mediterranean diet
We often hear about the physical benefits of eating a Mediterranean diet, but two recent studies concluded it could also have a positive impact on your mood. A diet high in vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts, whole grains and olive oil could stave off depression, according to two separate studies conducted in Spain and London last month.
Spanish scientists from the Universities of Las Palmas and Navarra studied a group of 10,094 individuals over four years, and found that those who followed a classic Mediterranean diet were 30 per cent less likely to develop depression. Researchers from University College, London, who studied 3,486 civil servants over five years, also came up with exactly the same figure: Mediterranean-style eaters were 30 per cent less likely to develop depression. It is thought that while different aspects of the diet may have specific benefits, it may be the combined effect that has a big impact on mood.
“It is plausible that the synergistic combination of a sufficient provision of omega 3 fatty acids together with other natural unsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants from olive oil and nuts, flavonoids and other phytochemicals from fruit and other plant foods and large amounts of natural folates and other B vitamins in the overall Mediterranean dietary pattern may exert a fair degree of protection against depression,” said the authors of the Spanish study in Archives of General Psychiatry.
Mediterranean countries are known to have lower levels of depression than those in the north of Europe, and this research suggests that it might be due to their swapping red meat and dairy for fish and olive oil, and ditching processed foods in favour of fresh fruit and veg.
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