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What the Research Tells Us about Diet and Depression

March: American National Nutrition Month

Depression remains one of the largest health issues in the United States, affecting millions of Americans. The economic burden of depression has been estimated to reach nearly $200 billion annually, sometimes leading to disability in adults and children. Estimated to cause severe impairments in nearly 10 million Americans, depression rates are high in older and younger populations, with 13% of 18-25 year old’s being diagnosed with the condition.

There are not many evidence-based treatment options available for depression. The current treatments include therapy and pharmaceutical intervention. However, many medications have side effects or withdrawal effects. In recent years, studies have been conducted on dietary modification as a potential therapeutic intervention for the prevention and treatment of depression. As part of American National Nutrition Month, which occurs each March, we are looking into the current research related to nutrition and depression.

One glimmer of hope in depression research has been the new understanding that food could represent an additional treatment strategy for the condition. As I noted in a recent article, scientific literature has increasingly supported dietary modification as a therapeutic intervention for both treatment and prevention of depression. The subject of dietary modification to treat depression has been popular since singer Justin Bieber tweeted that changing his diet helped him combat his own depression. While celebrities without medical degrees should probably not give medical advice, a recent review and meta-analysis showed early indications that a healthier diet was associated with lower rates of developing depression. The authors do caution that further studies are needed.

In 2017, the “SMILES” study looked at utilizing a 12 week nutritional counseling program as an intervention for adults with depression. The study showed that the adults in the dietary intervention group had lower symptoms of depression and were less likely to go into remission. A later 2019 study reported similar results through the reduction of refined carbohydrates, sugar, soft drinks, and fatty, processed meats. Because these studies were small, more research is needed before healthcare professionals can recommend diet modification as a method to treat depression.

It is important to note that dietary interventions may not work for everyone, or may be inappropriate for some individuals. However, dietary modification could potentially offer a low-risk, low-cost treatment option for some individuals based upon the current research. Further research is still needed to fully understand the benefits of a healthier diet in relation to depression.

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