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There is unquestionable evidence that a healthy diet has a positive impact on our physical health. But what about mental illnesses like depression? Can they get worse or better according to our diet?
The most recent studies suggest that yes.
In 2015 a study published in the prestigious journal The Lancet became a point of reference in this field of research: it suggested that nutrition is as important for mental health as it is for cardiology, endocrinology or gastroenterology.
Now, a review of 41 studies published over the past eight years reveals that certain diets seem to have a positive effect on mood and, on the contrary, that certain poor eating habits increase the risk of depression.
These conclusions have just been published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry .
What diets help and what diets make the mood worse?
After analyzing dozens of studies from the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Australia and the United States, in which some 31,000 people participated , the research team concluded that processed foods and those that contain large amounts of fat or sugar lead to inflammation, not only of the intestine but of the whole body, in what is known as ” systemic inflammation “.
According to Dr. Camille Lasalle, who led the analysis of researchers at the London University College London (UCL), “a pro-inflammatory diet can induce systemic inflammation and this can directly increase the risk of depression in a significant way.”
“Chronic inflammation can affect mental health by transporting pro-inflammatory molecules to the brain, and it can also affect the neurotransmitter molecules responsible for the regulation of mood, ” said Lasalle, who works in the department of epidemiology and public health of UCL
On the contrary, academics found that those who followed a traditional Mediterranean diet had a much lower probability of developing depression, which is according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the largest cause of disease and disability in the world.
The Mediterranean diet is a model of healthy diet that normally includes many vegetables, legumes and cereals, as well as olive oil, fish, nuts and meats and dairy in moderation.
Association or cause?
It is difficult to explain the connection between mood and food. There are many factors that can be involved and that can be intertwined. It is similar to the dilemma of what came first, the chicken or the egg?
For example, being depressed can cause loss of appetite and can cause someone not to take care of themselves and eat worse. And on the contrary, it is more likely that people who feel full and happy have healthier lifestyles and eat a better diet.
While these nuances are true, the scholars who made this analysis insist that what they found was a causal link and not simply an association.
According to Lasalle, “a poor diet can increase the risk of depression since these results are from longitudinal studies that excluded people with depression at the beginning”.
Longitudinal studies are a type of observational study that investigates the same group of people repeatedly over a period of time.
“These studies looked at how the diet at the point of departure is related to new cases of depression,” said the researcher.
But she herself accepts that there is still no strong clinical evidence to corroborate the causal link found in observational studies.
This requires more rigorous and specific studies, such as a randomized controlled trial in people at risk of depression.
“While it is true that a healthy diet is good for many reasons, we need to have more evidence before we can say that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can improve your mental health,” said Naveed Sattar, a professor of metabolic medicine at the University of California. Glasgow, which was not involved in the UCL analysis.
Could diet be a form of treatment for depression?
Now researchers have to test this theory, to study whether diet could be a way to treat depression.
In 2017, a small but significant intervention study conducted in Australia showed that a modified Mediterranean diet significantly helped many patients with severe depression within a 12-week period.
Dr. Tasmine Akbaraly, coauthor of the UCL study, believes that there is enough evidence to begin to consider diet as another part of psychiatric medicine .
She believes that advice on diet should be part of the routine work of mental health professionals. ”
While there may be many other important factors related to mental problems, such as emotional trauma or stress, many specialists believe that we should not underestimate the power to change the diet to improve mood.