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How Diet Fights Depression, According to Science

People who suffer from moderate to severe depression might find relief for their symptoms from a surprising source: healthy food. A research trial found that nutritious foods can provide antidepressant benefits on a measurable scale.

For quite some time, poor diet has been linked to a high risk for depression. Poor food choices can often become sources of comfort when someone is already dealing with depression. But can consuming more unhealthy foods make us depressed? Just how big a part does low quality food play? And can an improvement in our diets also improve feelings of depression? Scientific trials are now addressing these questions that have long been unanswered.

A randomized control trial went in search of an answer. It was led by the director of Deakin University’s Food and Mood Center in Australia, Dr. Felice Jacka.

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SMILES Trial

Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States, or SMILES, was comprised of 67 women and men who were in psychotherapy and/or taking antidepressant medication. The subjects also had unhealthy diets; not enough intake of vegetables or fruit, very little fiber, and consumed many processed foods.

Half of the participants in the study kept their usual eating habits and were only asked to attend sessions for a social support group. The other half of the participants were placed on a modified Mediterranean-style diet (ModiMedi diet), and kept in touch regularly with a dietician.

The depression symptoms of all participants were noted and graded before and after the 3-month trial using the MADRS scale (Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale). On a scale of 0 to 60, 60 representing severe depression levels, the average study participant score was 25.

Subjects who only relied on the support group improved their MADRS score by an average of 4 points and about 8% attained remission. However, participants on the Mediterranean-style diet showed an average improvement of around 11 points. Almost a third of participants had such low scores that they no longer met the criteria for depression.

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The ModiMedi Diet

Weight loss was not the goal of the modified Mediterranean diet, so there was no limit on the caloric intake of a subject. The macronutrients of the diet were 18% protein, 40% fat, 37% carbohydrates, 2% alcohol, and 3% fiber. All percentages were based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. This diet was a huge improvement compared to the diets participants previously had.

Preferred foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat and unsweetened dairy, unsalted raw nuts, legumes, lean red meat – which is typically grass-fed in Australia, eggs, fish, olive oil, and chicken.

Foods to avoid: refined cereals, fast food, fried food, sweets, and processed meat.

Drinks: no more than 2 alcoholic drinks per day – with red wine being preferred, and no more than 2 sweeten

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The Financial Cost

High prices are usually the excuse people have for not purchasing or consuming healthy foods. But, the trial also found that the modified Mediterranean diet was far less expensive than the unhealthy diets the subjects previously had by about 19%.

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The Rundown

The SMILES trial was the first randomized control trial that sought to answer if an improvement in diet could improve mental health. The findings were favorable; significantly improving your diet might offer relief of depression

symptoms. This was found to be the case in just 3 months of healthier eating, and regular visits with a nutritionist. So, healthier food choices, cutting down on the not-so-healthy stuff, and being consistent, can greatly improve your symptoms of depression. And it’s inexpensive, which is a bonus.