A study has found that switching to a healthy diet may help pull people from the depths of depression in less than a month.
Researchers looked at 76 depressed university students whose daily meals were mostly made up of processed foods, sugar, and saturated fats.
They found that giving them more fruit, vegetables, fish, and lean meat triggered significant improvements in their mood after just three weeks.
Experts claim foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and lowers inflammation and ‘internal stress’ associated with depression.
The research by, Macquarie University in Australia, is the latest in a wealth of studies linking a good diet with improved mental health.
However, it is one of only few to directly examine the link using a randomised control, considered the most reliable type of study.
Dr Heather Francis and colleagues looked at 76 university students, all of whom were aged between 17 and 35.
At the start of the study, all volunteers filled out detailed questionnaires about their mood and food intake.
They all scored seven or higher on the depression, anxiety and stress scale – a sign of severe depression.
Volunteers also all consumed high amounts of refined carbohydrates, saturated fat and sugar.
The researchers then randomly split participants into two groups – ‘diet change’ and ‘regular diet’.
Both groups of participants were still taking their antidepressants throughout the study.
Those in the diet change group were told to eat five servings of vegetables and two or three pieces of fruit each day.
They were also told to consume three servings of wholegrain cereals, three portions of lean meat, eggs, tofu or legumes, as well as two tablespoons of olive oil and one teaspoon of turmeric or cinnamon per day.
The same volunteers were instructed to slash their refined carbohydrate, sugar, fat and processed food intake.
Researchers gave them a hamper filled with essential foods and £33 (R613.93) each week for their grocery shopping.
The regular diet group were told to continue eating as they normally would and were given no advice on diet.
After 21 days, volunteers who changed their diet saw their average depression score fall from 7.2 to 4.4 – considered a healthy number.
The group also saw their anxiety levels plummet from 6.3 to 3.4 and their stress fall from 7.7 to 4.8, results revealed.
The regular diet group saw their depression, anxiety and stress scores stay exactly the same. The findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.
The authors wrote: ‘These findings add to a growing literature showing a modest change to diet is a useful adjunct therapy to reduce symptoms of depression.’
The team of academics followed up with 33 of the participants from the healthy diet group after three months.
In this small sample, they found while only 21 per cent of them stuck to the healthy diet, those that did maintained their improvements in mood.
Richard Colwill, spokesman for the mental health charity SANE, said the study ‘adds to the body of evidence’ that suggests a healthy diet can improve mental health.
He added: ‘However, for those people who are struggling with poor mental health we would also encourage other lifestyle choices, such as regular exercise and making sure you do not miss any meals (especially breakfast) as low blood sugar can depress mood.
‘Most importantly, if you are experiencing depression or anxiety, and it has lasted for more than a fortnight and is affecting your ability to lead your life, you should seek professional support and treatment. Your GP is a good place to start.’