It's often said that eating better can help you feel better, both physically and mentally. But just how far does that effect go, especially in terms of mental health? Can what you eat actually change how you feel? That's what was put to the test in a new study, which looked at whether a healthy change in diet could affect symptoms of depression.
In the study, published in October in PLOS One, researchers asked over 100 college students with symptoms of depression and less-than-healthy diets to rate their symptoms, including anxiety, current mood, and self-efficacy (belief in their own ability). Then, the students were split into two groups. The first group was asked to continue their usual diet, while the second was instructed to follow a meal plan inspired by the Mediterranean diet, increasing their consumption of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, olive oil, and nuts while reducing processed foods such as soda, sweets, and fried food. Both groups continued to receive their usual outside treatment for depression.
After three weeks, all the participants checked back in with the research group. Those on the Mediterranean diet reported that, on average, their symptoms of depression had dropped from moderately severe to normal, with specific improvements in anxiety and stress as compared to the control group. The more closely the participants had adhered to the diet, the more improvements they saw.
Interestingly, within the diet group, participants tended to either reduce processed foods or eat more of the recommended, Mediterranean-diet-approved foods, rather than do both simultaneously. A deeper analysis revealed that those who ate fewer processed foods improved their symptoms of depression more dramatically than those who simply ate more of the healthy food. There was also evidence to suggest that participants maintained the mental health improvements three months after the end of the study, even when they didn't adhere as strictly to the diet.
It's worth noting that the study was relatively small and looked at young adults specifically, and that a healthy diet is not a "cure" for depression, as researchers told the New York Times. It's also not a substitute for other kinds of treatment, such as therapy or medication. But this study is a good indication that, yes, eating healthier can positively affect mental health in real, measurable ways, especially alongside other forms of treatment. Remember to talk to a physician or a registered dietitian before changing your diet, and if you think you might have depression, be sure to review the physical symptoms of depression and talk to a psychiatrist or psychologist to review treatment options. Here are more tips you can implement right now to help relieve your symptoms.