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Healthier diets can reduce depression in young men

Depression is a common mental health problem, affecting over a million Australians each year, and sometimes even leading to suicide. A research team led by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has now found that switching from a poor diet to a healthy Mediterranean one can significantly reduce depression in young men aged 18-25. This study contributes to the emerging field of Nutritional Psychiatry, which explores the impact of specific nutrients, foods, and dietary patterns on mental health.

The scientists enrolled 72 young participants with moderate to severe depression for a 12-week randomized control trial to assess how switching to a Mediterranean diet affects their symptoms of depression. Prior to the study, about 30 percent of the participants failed to adequately respond to standard treatments for depression, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or anti-depressant medication.

“We were surprised by how willing the young men were to take on a new diet,” said study lead author Jessica Bayes, a doctoral student in Nutritional Psychiatry at UTS. “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.”   

The new diets included colorful vegetables, legumes, and wholegrains, olive oil, oily fish, 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,” said Bayes.

“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,” she explained. “To have beneficial microbes, we need to feed them fibre, which is found in legumes, fruits and vegetables.”

Most of the participants reported significant mood improvements after the trial, and many of them were keen to continue the diet after the study ended, suggesting how effective, tolerable, and worthwhile have found these dietary changes.

“Medical doctors and psychologists should consider referring depressed young men to a nutritionist or dietitian as an important component of treating clinical depression,” Bayes concluded.

The study is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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