New Research Suggests a Healthy Diet May Help Depression

Doctors and patients have long focused on the benefits of drug and talk therapies for the treatment of depression. However, the rising costs of health insurance and prescription medications coupled with a push toward leading healthier lifestyles means patients are challenging the healthcare community to explore better options.  The smartest of these may prove to be the easiest and most cost effective of all – better nutrition.

Low Key Nutrient Levels and the Link to Depression

It is well documented that patients suffering from depression have low levels of certain key nutrients. Mental health professionals note some of these same nutrients are effective in the prevention of depression and are easily found in traditional diets, like the Mediterranean diet.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the Mediterranean diet “emphasizes plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. It replaces butter with healthy fats, such as olive oil and canola oil, and uses herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods. Red meat is limited to no more than a few times per month, while fish should be on the menu twice a week.”  The modern farm to table movement is an excellent example of how grassroots movements can cause change on the community level, causing outsiders to recognize the need to move away from processed foods and to return to a healthier diet consisting of more vegetables and grains too.

“Anthropological and epidemiological data indicate that humans evolved on a shore-based diet with abundant seafood and few calories from seed oils…In contrast, typical Western diets are now nearly devoid of adequate seafood [source of most omega-3 fatty acids]”, according to Dr. Chiu et al. In their article, “The Use of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Treatment of Depression,” a review of the recently published data regarding this topic, they cite a statistic from the World Health Organization (WHO), stating that by 2020, depression will be the second-leading cause of disability and death among established market economies.

In similar, independent studies, it has been found that eating less fish is associated with a higher rate of depression.  Diets high in seafood are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, high levels of which often mean lower levels of depression.   Higher fish/seafood consumption has been correlated with a lower prevalence of a major depressive disorder, postpartum depression, and bipolar disorder.

Everything is not equal when it comes to fatty acids, though. V-6 fatty acids, in particular, should be avoided as they can actually promote the “pathogenesis of many illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.” Guidance in making changes to their diets can be a very important part of treatment for patients. Professionals like a dietician can educate patients about which specific foods to eat to get the key nutrients they need to achieve their goals.

What is the Modi-Medi Diet and can it help depression?

It’s becoming increasingly necessary to find alternatives and/or additions to therapies to accommodate patients who cannot tolerate medications or those patients who may not respond well to them.   In response to this need, researchers Felice Jacka and Michael Berk modified the Mediterranean Diet to their specifications for evaluating its effects on the treatment of depression and renamed it the Modi-Medi Diet.  They used their Modi-Medi Diet in the Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle In Lowered Emotional States (SMILES) study. It was conducted during a 12-week period in Australia and was aimed at patients who had a diagnosis of depression, and who had also said that they practiced poor dietary habits.

The SMILES study compared two groups of patients.  One group met with a dietitian for counseling in the need to increase the consumption of certain foods including, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, and lean meats (chicken and seafood), as well as to decrease their consumption of empty carbohydrates, refined sugars and starches, and highly processed foods, which are associated with a higher risk of depression. Participants in this group were urged to keep a Food Diary but were not required to follow any specific diet, i.e. the Modi-Medi Diet.  The second group of study participants received the exact same counseling, would keep a Food Diary, and would be required to follow the specific diet used in the study.

Drew Ramsey MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University, commented on the SMILES study stating, “Overall, that is what we also see in our clinic: Individuals who have the best response to a brain-food intervention are those who are eating a nutrient-depleted diet, often called the ‘beige diet’ or the ’12-year-old-boy diet’, consisting of empty carbohydrates, pizza, pasta, baked goods, and few of the brain nutrients that we hope patients will seek out based on the mountain of data we have.”  However, proponents argue that it may be hard for depressed patients to have the motivation to seek out that data or to stick to a diet regimen on a long term basis.

If I improve my diet, will my depression improve?

While there is still much research to be done, finding new ways to treat depression through improving diet shows some promise.  More studies may one day find that improving diet with the aid of a clinical dietician can help manage depression.


Chlu, C., MD, Liu, J. P., MS, & Su, K., MD. (2008, August 1). The Use of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Treatment of Depression. Retrieved February 15, 2017, from

Jacka, F. N., O’Neil, A., Opie, R., Itsiopoulos, C., Cotton, S., Mohebbi, M., … Berk, M. (2017, January 30). A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial) [Research article]. BMC medicine.

Ramsey, D., MD. (2017, February 3). Prescribing a Diet to Treat Depression. Retrieved February 15, 2017, from

Reddy, S. (2017, January 30). New Research on Treating Depression. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from