Diet is essential to managing depression. The reason for that is everyone has a diet, you have to eat something! Unlike other things that may help depression, the right diet relieves depression but the wrong diet actually causes depression. So you get a big double wammy from the wrong diet because you are missing out on the anti-depression benefits as well as actively adding to your depression.
Considering how important diet is to depression there actually isn’t much research on it. The reason for this is because cash is king. Pharmaceutical companies are willing to invest big money in running studies for their drugs as they stand to make a lot of money from it. But no one stands to make much money from proving how great salad is or even multivitamins. However more research is starting to be done and so far the results look great.
One study involved eating a healthy diet for 12 weeks vs receiving social support. 1/3 of people (32.3%) in the healthy diet group went in to complete remission so they no longer had depression at all. This is a great result. Only 8% of the social support group went in to remission.
The problem with healthy eating that this study demonstrates is of course that the other 2/3 of participants that didn’t benefit as much.
The researchers scored participants based on how well they stuck to the diet. The better they stuck to the diet the stronger their drop in depression. Every extra 10% they scored in adherence to the diet resulted in a 2.2 drop on the MARDS scale they were using to measure their level of depression. With a 15 point drop being required to get the average participant in to remission. In other words the people who didn’t benefit as much were the participants that didn’t actually stick to the diet.
So it wasn’t the case that a healthy diet didn’t work for everyone, it was that people struggle to stick to a healthy diet. That’s the problem with healthy eating as a remedy for depression. It can be really hard. The people in this study had regular meetings and training to help them stick to the diet, and lots of them still didn’t do a great job of following the diet.
This was the diet they followed, it was based on the Mediterranean diet:
“The primary focus was on increasing diet quality by supporting the consumption of the following 12 key food groups (recommended servings in brackets): whole grains (5–8 servings per day); vegetables (6 per day); fruit (3 per day), legumes (3–4 per week); low-fat and unsweetened dairy foods (2–3 per day); raw and unsalted nuts (1 per day); fish (at least 2 per week); lean red meats (3–4 per week) , chicken (2–3 per week); eggs (up to 6 per week); and olive oil (3 tablespoons per day),
whilst reducing intake of ‘extras’ foods, such as sweets, refined cereals, fried food, fast-food, processed meats and sugary drinks (no more than 3 per week). Red or white wine consumption beyond 2 standard drinks per day and all other alcohol (e.g. spirits, beer) were included within the ‘extras’ food group. Individuals were advised to select red wine preferably and only drink with meals.”
That doesn’t mean this is the perfect diet for relieving depression. There isn’t anywhere near enough research to know what the best diet is, but it is certainly a good starting point. The best diet is one that you will you stick to depending on what your own strengths and weaknesses are. So if you prefer veg over whole grains then eating more veg will probably okay. Swapping veg for fried bacon on the other hand wont work.
I highly recommend making rolled oats one of the main whole grain foods you eat. Oats are a supper food when it comes to digestion. The gluey oats coat and protect the lining of your stomach. This will make your diet even healthier.
If you have an intolerance or allergy to a particular food then you definitely should avoid that food. A lot of mild food intolerance go undiagnosed as we have a slow response to them. If you think you may have one then avoid that food for 2 weeks and the try have a lot in one go and see how it makes you feel.
Wholegrain wheat is much healthier than refined wheat. But evidence is sketchy when it comes to how healthy whole wheat actually is. There is so much wheat in our diet that most of the studies just show that the whole grain wheat is better than refined. Research from 2016 has shown that some people do have a negative immune response to all wheat including wholegrain wheat. If you think wheat may make you ill then test avoiding it for 2 weeks too.
Supplements can be quite an easy way of improving your diet. Multi vitamins can relieve depression. As well as taking a probiotic supplement. There are also associations between a lack of omega 3 found in fish and major depression, especially if you normally consume a lot of omega 6 foods including mayonnaise, foods that contain corn oil and animal fats. Taking an omega 3 supplement each day can be helpful.
You can also add anti-inflammatory spices to your food to make it even healthy. Like ginger to your oats. Chilli powder, fenugreek and tumeric are good too. Try to add one of these to each meal if you can.
Diet and its effects on health and depression is a complicated subject and could easily fill a whole book. However the foods in the above study and the supplements I have mentioned are a great starting point.
So How Do You Stick To A Healthy Diet?
Here are some ideas:
Don’t wait until you are too hungry, you are much more likely to crave sugary foods when you get too hungry
Getting in to a routine of eating the same food each day makes it a lot easier. Then just have one day a week where you mix it up to make sure you still have variety in your diet
You are more likely to order healthy food on-line because there is a delay between when you order the food and when you have to eat it,
Whereas if you are buying food in-store then you get to eat as soon as you have bought it, so you are more likely to buy tasty junk food on an impulse. Stores are actually use this insight to get you to buy more. They put healthy food at the start as you are more likely to buy them when you are further away from till and then sweets closer to the till as you get closer to being able to pay for and eat the food.
If you do shop in-store don’t go whilst you are hungry
People who exercise are more likely to eat healthier (possibly because better blood sugar management from exercise means you will crave junk food less often)
People who keep a log of their food are more likely to eat healthier too. It is worth logging how you feel each day along with your food so you can see which foods are making you fell better or worse.