Australian researchers took a deeper look in to what a good nutrition can do for your mental health.

We know that eating a healthy, balanced diet can be good for your body, but what about for your brain? Certain foods may make us happy when we eat them (hello, chocolate!), but can your diet also help you feel better? A new study from Macquarie University and published in PLoS ONE found that, even in a short time, good nutrition might help alleviate depression and its symptoms.

Illustration of a brain that also looks like an apple with bites taken out of it
Credit: Getty Images / Skopein

The Study

Researchers looked at 78 young adults (between 17 and 35 years of age), who all had elevated depression symptoms and "habitually poor diets." Participants were split into two groups: one that would follow a healthy diet and one that would continue their current diets. For three weeks, the intervention group was instructed to follow a more nutritious diet including 5 servings of vegetables, 2 to 3 servings of fruits, 3 servings of whole grains, 3 servings of lean protein (including 3 servings of fish per week), and moderate amounts of nuts, seeds, spices and unsweetened dairy every day. After the short three-week intervention, the outcomes were impressive.

They assessed depressive symptoms before and after the diet change through the 21-point depression scale, current mood, self-efficacy (think: one's own ability to complete a task) and memory. Out of the 38 people in each group who finished out the study, there were significantly lower self-reported depression symptoms. There were also increases in reported self-efficacy. No significant changes were seen for current mood or memory.

Three months after the end of the intervention, they followed up with participants to see the longer-term impacts a healthy diet could have on their depression symptoms. Surprisingly, people in the healthy diet group maintained the depression symptom improvements they initially saw during the intervention, while those in the placebo group stayed at their baseline.

What It Means

Good nutrition can impact our physical health, but this study found that it can be impactful for our outlook and mental health as well. With the growing awareness for mental health, it is important to learn the role that lifestyle can have, whether it is helpful or harmful. There is evidence that certain foods can alleviate stress and help you sleep as well. More research is needed to illuminate the specifics of how diet can influence mood, but this study helps illuminate how important diet can be. Though changes in lifestyle, like diet and exercise, may be helpful in managing mental illness, therapy and pharmaceuticals might still be necessary. If you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety or depressive thoughts and behaviors, speak to your doctor or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264).

Even though the intervention in this study was only three weeks long, it had lasting effects on participants mental health. This has important implications for how we view physical health, mental health and where they intersect. As we wait on more research to firm up how and what foods alleviate conditions like depression, we will be enjoying some of these delicious Mood-Boosting Recipes.