• The trial involved 67 adults over 12 weeks. (Getty Images)
Treat depression symptoms and save money by switching to a Med diet, according to a world-first study.
Yasmin Noone

22 May 2018 - 11:40 AM  UPDATED 9 Oct 2018 - 1:16 PM

Switching to a Mediterranean-style diet might be able to help treat your depression and save you money by lowering the costs associated with your mental health care and food expenditure.

This is according to research published by Deakin University this year, showing that diet can be a cost-effective way to treat clinical depression symptoms in adults.

The randomised control trial involved 67 adults with a poor diet who met the DSM-IV criteria for a major depressive episode, and ran for 12 weeks.

Participants were split into two groups – one which received seven sessions with a dietitian for dietary support and another where participants received social support (befriending) to treat their depressive symptoms.

“What [the study] showed was that when it came to the SMILES trial, those who received support to eat a Mediterranean-style diet had lower overall costs compared to the comparison group."

The study found that participants receiving dietary support for their depression spent $71 less a week on health care sector costs and $26 less a week on food expenses than people in the social support group, because they switched to a Mediterranean diet.

“What [the study] showed was that when it came to the SMILES trial, those who received support to eat a Mediterranean-style diet had lower overall costs compared to the comparison group,” says Dr Mary Lou Chatterton, lead study author and research fellow at Deakin Health Economics in the Centre for Population Health Research.

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The study built on findings from Deakin’s 2017 SMILES trial proving that diet could be used to help alleviate depression, and went one step further to analyse the comparative costs of living with the mental illness.

Researchers looked at comparative costs in things like healthcare visits (or GP visits), medicine, food, travel, and lost productivity to evaluate whether a dietary intervention provides value for money. The economic analysis also factored in the dietitians’ wage costs, as well as food costs from the recommended Mediterranean diet. 

“The lower cost was partially due to fewer health professional visits, such as to doctors, dentists, and psychologists,” says Dr Chatterton. “The participants on the dietary intervention also reported less time lost from unpaid activities such as housework and childcare.”

Overall healthcare costs were $856 lower and average societal costs were $2591 lower for the diet group over the 12 weeks of the trial.

“We already know that dietary counselling is cost-effective when it comes to the management of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” Dr Chatterton says.

“But these results indicate that providing support for people with depression to improve their diet may be a cost-effective strategy to reduce mental health symptoms too.

“There is a strong relationship between depression and the development of other chronic health conditions like these. So a dietary improvement strategy could have multiple benefits that translate to wider health and wellbeing.”

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SMILES creator and Director of Deakin’s Food and Mood Centre Professor Felice Jacka says diet wasn’t the only cause of or solution to depression. "Depression, like any other mental illness, has many causes and many drivers," explains Prof Jacka.

"But if we can identify things like diet that are relatively straightforward and cost-effective to address, then that should be under-pinning all other strategies for prevention and treatment."

Prof Jacka recommends that people with depressive symptoms eat a balanced diet of wholefoods – fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, olive oil and fish – while steering clear of processed foods.

“We increasingly understand the importance of a healthy diet for our mental and brain health,” says Prof Jacka. “Diet affects our immune system, brain plasticity and the health of our gut, and each of these - in turn - affects our mental and brain health.

"There is also a very large and consistent body of evidence to show that the quality of people's diets is linked to their risk for depression, across countries, cultures and age groups."

“On the other hand, unhealthy foods full of added sugars and fats have a detrimental impact on all of these factors. There is also a very large and consistent body of evidence to show that the quality of people's diets is linked to their risk for depression, across countries, cultures and age groups.

“For these reasons, we expected that dietary improvement would help people's depression, and it did.”

Dr Chatterton adds that although this study shows that people can cost-effectively treat their depressive symptoms by improving their diet, results will vary person-to-person and may be dependent on other factors influencing mental health.

“For people with depression, improving their diet may have benefits to their non-paid productivity,” says Dr Chatterton. “For clinicians, helping their patients with depression to improve their diet may be cost-effective through savings in other health care resources.”

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