Diet and Mood

December 02, 2009

Will a diet rich in whole foods lower our risk and the overall occurrence of depression?

Will a diet rich in whole foods lower our risk and the overall occurrence of depression? Researchers from University College in London say quite possibly. Their recent study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, examined the link between diet quality and mood among 3,486 civil service employees over a five-year period – with some interesting results.

In the study, diets high in processed foods, meat, chocolate, sweetened desserts, fried foods, refined cereals and high fat dairy products were compared to diets based on more whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables and fish. Then, respondents were asked to answer a series of questions, which included a self-assessment of depression.

Even after other factors – such as smoking, physical activity level and body mass – were controlled, those consuming a healthier diet were less likely to report symptoms of depression. Those who reported a higher intake of processed foods were more likely to experience depression.

While many studies have looked at the connection between isolated nutrients and foods on depression, few have looked at the relationship between overall diet and mood. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the link, including the effect of certain vitamins and minerals on brain chemistry. In addition, the high content of antioxidants and folate found in a whole food diet could be protective against depression. Higher intakes of fish – part of a whole food diet – have been shown to help lower depression too, thanks to the high content of long chain Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids found in fish.

“It is also possible that the protective effect of diet on depression comes from the cumulative and synergic effect of nutrients from different sources of foods rather than from the effect of one isolated nutrient,” says study co-author Dr. Tasnime Akbaraly, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London

Whereas a diet rich in processed foods increases vulnerability, the results of this study suggest that the consumption of fruits, vegetables and fish provides a defense again the onset of depressive symptoms. In light of these findings, Akbaraly says that diet should be considered a potential target for the prevention of depressive disorders.

“Our findings suggest that existing healthy eating policies will generate additional benefits to health and well-being,” she says.

Although the study’s researchers do note certain limitations in the study’s design, including the method of dietary data collection and the homogeneity of the population studied, there was a definite and observable link between depression and processed food intake. However, more studies are needed to provide further conclusions on the link between food and depression.

In the meantime, The Lempert Report encourages retailers to point shoppers in the direction of the produce section for more fruits and vegetables as well as to the freezer aisles where they can find flavorful frozen fruits and vegetables. Manufacturers are encouraged to look for inspiration from innovative products, like Haagen-Dazs 5, Healthy Choice All Naturals and Campbell’s Select Harvest, that minimize processing and keep ingredient lists small.

Major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability for those aged 15 to 44 in the United States, affecting approximately 6.7% of adults, according to The National Institute of Mental Health. For more information on depression, visit The National Institute of Mental Health.