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Study finds Mediterranean diet improves depression symptoms in young men

University of Technology, Sydney


Medical doctors and psychologists should consider referring depressed young men to a nutritionist or dietitian as an important component of treating clinical depression, according to a new study


This randomised controlled trial showed that just 12 weeks of following a 'Mediterranean-type diet' led to significant reductions in depressive symptoms in young men. 

It therefore supports the findings of previous clinical trials of dietary intervention for depression, including the pioneering 'SMILES' trial (which mainly included young women), and HELFIMED study - as well as meta-analyses showing that more general dietary interventions to encourage healthier eating can improve mental health in other conditions, and in people with 'sub-clinical' depression. 

The researchers acknowledged they were surprised at the willingness of participants to try a dietary approach, and sustain it. Although their diets were initially judged as 'poor' (as most young adults' diets are in the US) they engaged with the support provided, changed their eating habits quite quickly, and kept up those changes. 

At least 30% of people with clinical depression fail to respond to standard treatments, including cognitive-behavioural therapy (which can be hard to access), or antidepressant medications (which can have adverse side effects, including difficulties in withdrawal).

Practical Implications?

These findings provide encouraging support for the growing 'nutritional psychiatry' approach - in which clinical psychiatrists can refer patients to suitably qualified nutritionists and dietiticians, to advise and support them with appropriate dietary changes.

Ideally, mental health professionals would benefit from training in BOTH nutrition and diet AND mental health - although multi-specialist teams are already used to good effect in both general medicine and psychiatry.  

Importantly, however, this 'nutritional psychiatry' approach can only succeed in being more widely adopted if more professionals are suitably qualified and trained to provide the required advice and support.*

*FAB Research has 20 years' of experience and expertise of providing CPD in this area, so please get in touch to find out more about how we could help you if you are interested. 

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09/05/2022 - Medical Xpress

Young men with a poor diet saw a significant improvement in their symptoms of depression when they switched to a healthy Mediterranean diet, a new study shows.

Depression is a common mental health condition that affects approximately 1 million Australians each year. It is a significant risk factor for suicide, the leading cause of death in young adults.

The 12-week randomized control trial, conducted by researchers from the University of Technology Sydney, was recently published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Lead researcher Jessica Bayes, a Ph.D. candidate in the UTS Faculty of Health, said the study was the first randomized clinical trial to assess the impact of a Mediterranean diet on the symptoms of depression in young men (aged 18-25).

"We were surprised by how willing the young men were to take on a new diet," Bayes said. "Those assigned to the Mediterranean diet were able to significantly change their original diets, under the guidance of a nutritionist, over a short time frame."

"It suggests that medical doctors and psychologists should consider referring depressed young men to a nutritionist or dietitian as an important component of treating clinical depression," she said.

The study contributes to the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry, which aims to explore the effect that specific nutrients, foods and dietary patterns can have on mental health. The diet used in the study was rich in colorful vegetables, legumes and wholegrains, oily fish, olive oil and raw, unsalted nuts.

"The primary focus was on increasing diet quality with fresh wholefoods while reducing the intake of 'fast' foods, sugar and processed red meat," Bayes said.

"There are lots of reasons why scientifically we think food affects mood. For example, around 90 percent of serotonin, a chemical that helps us feel happy, is made in our gut by our gut microbes. There is emerging evidence that these microbes can communicate to the brain via the vagus nerve, in what is called the gut-brain axis.

"To have beneficial microbes, we need to feed them fiber, which is found in legumes, fruits and vegetables," she said.

Roughly 30 percent of depressed patients fail to adequately respond to standard treatments for major depressive disorder such as cognitive behavior therapy and anti-depressant medications.

"Nearly all our participants stayed with the program, and many were keen to continue the diet once the study ended, which shows how effective, tolerable and worthwhile they found the intervention," Bayes said.