It is not rocket science to know that diet plays a crucial role in our mental health and overall well-being. In schools we came across a very common word quite frequently and that word is ‘balanced diet’. We were taught that foods rich in proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals should be taken and such diet is a balanced diet. Sadly, we seem to have forgotten the lesson now. We are jeopardizing our mental and physical health by eating junk food filled with ‘empty calories’.
Mental illnesses have become very prevalent. In the United States, nearly one in five adults is suffering from mental illness. The data is quite shocking. There are mood disorders, anxiety disorders, hypertension, etc. There is no single factor causing mental illnesses. There are genes, environment and chemicals in the brain contributing to mental health issues. However, through studies it is now being established that there is a relation between poor diet and poor mental health and the vice versa. When we eat good food it is often associated with feelings of well-being. A study was conducted by researchers on this line of thought and it was found that consumption of fruits and vegetables in good amount may be associated with higher levels of mental well-being in both the sexes. A systematic review of 12 epidemiological studies also found that eating good and healthy food items facilitates good mental well-being.
Good diet fighting depression
A clinical trial led by Dr Felice Jacka who is a director of Food and Mood centre at Deakin University, Australia became the first randomized control trial (RCT) that answers a very important question regarding good diet and good mental health. People who suffer from clinical depression get the best results when their treatment is a combination of medications and therapy. As it turns out, a good diet can also play a critical role in alleviating the symptoms of depression.
a. The Experiment
For the experiment, a total of 67 men and women participated. The participants were suffering from depression and were taking medications and/or going for therapy sessions regularly. The participants in the study were all consuming lower amount of fruits and vegetables, lower dietary fibres, too much sugar, too much unhealthy snacks and processed food. In other words, their diet was poor. Participants in the study were divided into two groups: an intervention group and a controlled group. Participants belonging to the intervention group were put on a Mediterranean diet (diet typically rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, beans and olive oil) and met with their dietitian regularly. While people belonging to the controlled group were not put on Mediterranean diet but were required to attend social support groups. After 3 months, depression symptoms of the participants were recorded.
(Note: The scale used was MADRS scale (Montgomery–Åsberg Depression Rating Scale). The scale is from 0-60 in which a high score means an individual is very depressed as compared to a lower score. An average score of the participants came out to be 25).
People who took Mediterranean diet for 3 months improved their score on depression scale by an average of 11 points. While people who were on their usual diet improved by an average of 4 points.
b. The Diet
What should you Eat: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat/unsweetened dairy, raw unsalted nuts, legumes, eggs, fish, chicken, olive oil and lean red meat.
What should you avoid: too much sugary items, processed foods, breads, refined cereals, fast and fried food.
It will not be right to comment that a good diet is one thing that will help people fight depression. A causal relationship cannot be established. However, they are definitely co-related. A good diet helps and if followed properly benefits will be visible. Mental health problems have become quite common now and it is a good thing that scientists are diving deeper to find different ways through which such problems can be tackled. ‘We are what we eat’ is not after all a bad advice.