SWITCHING to a healthy diet can alleviate depression.
The simple change was three times more effective than a common therapy in which a trained person gives the sufferer social support.
About a million Australians suffer depression, but only half get relief from medical or psychological therapy.
In a world-first Deakin University study, half of participants were given social support. The other group had three months’ advice from a clinical dietitian on reducing their intake of sugary and processed foods and drinks, and on increasing intake of wholegrains, vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, fish, lean red meats, olive oil and nuts.
A third of people in the second group had a remission, compared with 8 per cent in the first group.
Improvements in the diet group were independent of weight loss or exercise.
“And the more people improved their diet, the more their depressive symptoms dropped,” said lead author Professor Felice Jacka, the director of the university’s Food and Mood Centre.
She said the diet was intended to complement, not replace, medication or counselling.
For 17 years Sarah Keeble has grappled with major depression that would drag her into a “hole of utter helplessness” for months.
“You fall into that hole and you can’t get yourself out of it, it doesn’t matter what you do,” she said.
“I was hanging by a thread and the only thing that was keeping me going was the kids.”
By chance, she came across the trial. While still taking medication, she found that following a healthier diet improved her mental health.
“I ate oats, fresh fruit and seeds for breakfast and salad and tuna or salmon for lunch and dinner,” she said. “It’s essentially a healthy Mediterranean diet, and it helped.
“I was drinking seven cups of caffeinated coffee a day, and now I drink decaf.”
While she still takes her medication, the mother-of-two uses healthy food as another strategy when she starts to feel her mood declining.
Prof Jacka said studies replicating the results were needed, but the findings, published in BMC Medicine on Tuesday, added to strong evidence of the link between diet and mental health.