Recently, scientists have explored the relationship between nutrition and mental health. And so far, the study findings are consistent and compelling: what you eat – and don’t eat – can have a powerful impact on mental health.
A viewpoint written by a panel of international experts, published in The Lancet in 2015, concluded that diet is “as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology and gastroenterology.”
The link between diet and mental health
Extensive observational data has consistently linked an unhealthy diet to a greater risk of depression. A higher intake of saturated fat, added sugars, refined starches and heavily processed foods has been tied to poorer mental health in adults and children.
At the same time, studies have connected a “healthy” dietary pattern to a lower risk of depression, as well as anxiety and bipolar disorder. A diet that’s high in vegetables and fruits, fish and whole grains is thought to protect against mental health disorders.
If you have depression, though, can changing your diet improve your mood? The answer, it seems, is yes.
A review of 16 randomized clinical trials published last month in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine concluded that eating a nutrient-dense diet significantly reduced the symptoms of depression. Unlike observational studies, randomized controlled trials prove cause and effect.
The SMILES trial (Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States), published in 2017, compared the effect of eating an anti-inflammatory Mediterranean-style diet to social support counselling in 67 participants with clinical depression. The findings: people who received the diet intervention experienced significantly greater improvement in depressive symptoms compared to the social support group.
How diet influences mood: inflammation
Mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, are on the rise. Among other contributing factors, our changing diet is thought to be to blame.
The transition from the whole foods diet our grandmothers ate – one based on nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits and whole grains – to a steady fare of nutrient-poor, high-calorie and highly processed foods has been associated with increases in depression and other mental disorders.
Diet has a direct impact on chronic inflammation, a factor that’s widely thought to be involved in depression. The anti-inflammatory properties of nutrients in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and oily fish have been shown to influence concentrations of brain chemicals that regulate emotions and cognition.
Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients such as vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and many natural plant compounds may reduce free radical damage to brain cells that influence mental health. The B vitamin folate is needed for the production of serotonin, a brain chemical responsible for maintaining mood balance.
Certain foods that feed our “good” gut bacteria, known as prebiotics, may be linked to better mental health since these gut microbes form a protective intestinal barrier helping to reduce inflammation. Our gut also synthesizes most of the body’s serotonin.
You can measure the inflammatory potential of your diet. The DII (Dietary Inflammatory Index), a tool developed by researchers from the University of South Carolina, is a validated food questionnaire that scores your diet based on 45 inflammation-promoting and anti-inflammatory food components.
The DII has been the focus of more than 225 published studies, including seven that have associated higher inflammatory DII scores to a greater risk of depression.
Medcan’s Nutrition and Mental Wellness Program
Medcan’s new and innovate program for the treatment of depression combines psychological counselling with a robust nutrition program that’s based on the landmark SMILES trial. Your Medcan team, consisting of a psychologist and a registered dietitian, will work with you to manage depression symptoms through a program of cognitive behavioural therapy and anti-inflammatory diet counselling.
The nutrition component of the program will teach you how to increase the anti-inflammatory potential of your diet. Your Medcan dietitian will use the DII risk calculator to score the inflammatory potential of your current diet. You’ll undergo lab testing to measure inflammatory markers and anti-inflammatory nutrients in your bloodstream.
Over the course of eight one-on-one sessions, you’ll receive personalized diet advice and coaching to help you adopt an anti-inflammatory diet. Anti-inflammatory meal and snack ideas, recipes, label reading and goal setting will be covered.
At the three-month mark, your DII score and blood measures will be repeated to show how your diet has improved. Throughout the program, your psychologist and dietitian will collaborate to enhance the success of your treatment.