• A randomised controlled trial in young adults suggests a healthier diet with a Mediterranean twist may directly reduce depression. (Moment RF/Getty Images)
An Australian-led study has shown that young adults with elevated symptoms of depression can improve their mental health by adopting a healthy diet with a Mediterranean twist.
By
Yasmin Noone

22 Oct 2019 - 1:31 PM  UPDATED 22 Oct 2019 - 1:31 PM

If you’re a young adult battling the symptoms of depression, you may be able to improve your low mood over the longer term by adopting a healthy diet with a Mediterranean twist. This mood change can take effect even if you only alter your eating patterns for three weeks.

This is the key finding from a new piece of research, led by Macquarie University and published in the journal PLOS ONE this month. It's the first study to prove that young adults with elevated depression symptoms can reduce their symptoms by adhering to specific dietary intervention. 

The study focused on young adults, aged 17-35 years old, who are in the prime of establishing health patterns but are also at a higher risk for depression.

It aimed to determine whether there was a cause-and-effect relationship between eating a healthy diet and a reduced risk of depression in this age group, and evaluate whether an improvement in diet can really counteract depression symptoms.

"We wanted to make sure that participants switched from using hydrogenated vegetable oils to olive oil, which is less processed.”

So the researchers conducted a randomised control trial with 76 university students, testing out the effectiveness of a healthy diet on mood.

“A healthy diet for the purpose of this study mainly followed the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, which recommends eating two serves of fruit, five serves of vegetables and two serves of fish and eating whole grains,” the study’s lead author, Dr Heather Francis, tells SBS.

“These recommendations also encompassed many of the features of the Mediterranean diet. The literature on the association between the Mediterranean diet and better mental health is strong.

“But the one food product that was not outlined in the guide that we really want to include was olive oil. We wanted to make sure that participants switched from using hydrogenated vegetable oils to olive oil, which is less processed.”

The diet also included other healthy fats from foods like avocados, nuts and seeds.

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The dietary results are in

The group was split in two – a ‘diet change’ group who were given brief instructions on how to follow a healthy diet, a healthy food hamper and $60 for groceries, and a ‘regular diet’ control group that was not given any dietary assistance.

The results showed that at the end of a three-week trial, the diet change group had successfully maintained a healthy diet. The participants showed a significant improvement in mood, with depression scores shifting into the normal range.

“There’s a clinical perception that people don’t have the ability, time or resources to change their diet,” Dr Francis says.

“But in this study, participants in the dietary change group did and their depression symptoms were reduced whereas the group who maintained their usual diet, did not experience an improvement in symptoms.”

“...if they really made radical dietary changes for the better, we saw more of an improvement in their mood.”

The study’s participants all had a normal weight and poor diet at the start of the study.

Dr Francis explains that the degree of dietary change during the three-week period correlated to the degree of change in depression symptoms.

“If a participant changed their diet a little bit and reduced processed food a little bit, they had a small improvement in depression symptoms but if they really made radical dietary changes for the better, we saw more of an improvement in their mood.”

People in both groups involved in the intervention maintained their treatment for depression (psychological therapy or medication) during the study if they were on treatment at the start of the study.

However, having a clinical diagnosis of depression was not a requirement to be involved in the research.

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How long did the diet's results last?

The authors followed up with 33 of the trial’s participants after three months.

They found that while only 21 percent of these participants fully maintained the healthy diet, those who did maintained their improvements in mood.

“When you’re younger, you can eat whatever you want and not gain too much weight because your metabolism is good,” she says. But the effects of a poor diet on the brain may occur before you gain weight.

“If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, in addition to adopting a healthy diet, it is always recommended to seek advice about your symptoms from a medical professional.”

“The brain is such a valuable resource so it’s important that young people develop healthier eating habits early on in life. In doing so, it will reduce the risk of depression and anxiety. It will also mean that they are getting in early to protect a really valuable tool – their brain.”

Dr Francis stresses that although diet is a great preventative measure for symptoms of depression that people can take on themselves, “it’s not the be-all and end-all”.

“If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, in addition to adopting a healthy diet, it is always recommended to seek advice about your symptoms from a medical professional.”

Mental Health Month is held in October each year to raise awareness about mental health and wellbeing. If this article has raised an issue for you or you are in need of support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

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