Not only is what you eat is important for your physical health—fueling your runs and preventing certain types of diseases—but it’s important for your mental health, too. New research out of Australia found that the types of food you put into your body can help reduce symptoms of depression.
The study, published in the journal PLOS One, included 101 participants who had moderate or high depression symptoms and regularly consumed refined carbs, sugar, and processed meats. Researchers had participants fill out surveys that measured things like depression, anxiety, memory, motivation, and mood, and then split everyone into two groups: one that didn’t change their diets and one that did.
Those who changed their diets were instructed to follow a Mediterranean-style diet for three weeks, which included fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, fish, nuts and seeds, olive oil, and spices like cinnamon and turmeric.
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After three months, researchers followed up with the participants. They found that those who changed their diets to include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat reported feeling less depressed, anxious, angry, tired, and tense at the end of the three-week period versus the beginning.
Additionally, 21 percent of those who changed their diets reported sticking with the diet when researchers followed up with them after three months, and almost 58 percent reported that they maintained some aspects of the diet.
Those who didn’t change their diets did not see much of a change in their depression and anxiety symptoms.
“Depression is a whole-body disorder, not just a disorder of the brain,” Heather Francis, Ph.D., lead study author and lecturer in Macquarie University’s department of psychology in Sydney, Australia, told Runner’s World.
According to Francis, depression is associated with a chronic inflammatory response, and researchers now know that a poor diet can boost systemic inflammation, too.
“This is likely for two reasons,” she said. “First, highly processed foods—sweets, fast food, and sugary drinks—increase inflammation, and second, if we do not consume enough nutrient-dense foods— fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and fish—then this can lead to insufficiencies in nutrients and fiber, which also increases inflammation.”
There have been previous studies that have shown an association between diet and depression symptoms, but this one was one of the first to tease out cause and effect rather than just a link, or a correlation.
Participants in this study didn’t restrict their calorie intake or the amount of food eaten. By simply cutting down on processed food and, increasing fruit, vegetable, and fish intake instead, they were able to see improvements in depression symptoms, Francis said.
However, it’s important to note that everyone is different, and while it’s worth seeing if a diet change can improve your depression symptoms, seeking professional help can be crucial to your mental—and physical—health as well.
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