Joe Milton is an evolutionary biologist who, after studying the evolution of plants for ten years at various Scottish universities, made a move into journalism. Since then he has written for the Financial Times, Nature and New Scientist, among others. Joe joined the London Science Media Centre in 2010, where he was Senior Press Officer for Mental Health, before taking up the position of Senior Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre in July 2012.
An Australian study released at an AusSMC briefing this week suggests switching from junk food to a healthy diet rich in fruit and veg won’t just benefit your physical health, it could also help you beat the blues.
The researchers brought together the data from 16 previous trials, including a total of 46,000 people who had changed their diets to deal with symptoms of depression and anxiety. The research focused mainly on people who reported mild depression symptoms such as ‘low mood’ or feeling down’, and did not look at people with clinical depression who were being treated professionally.
“Just making simple changes is…beneficial for mental health,” lead study author Dr Joseph Firth of Western Sydney University told journalists at the briefing.
“In particular, eating more nutrient-dense meals that are high in fibre and vegetables, while cutting back on fast-foods and refined sugars, appears to be sufficient for avoiding the potentially negative psychological effects of a ‘junk food’ diet.”
The research included several different types of ‘healthy’ diet, including weight loss diets, nutrient-boosting diets and low-fat diets, but found that no one particular diet worked better than any of the others.
Dr Firth described that as “good news”.
“The similar effects from any type of dietary improvement suggests that highly-specific or specialised diets are unnecessary for the average individual,” he said.
And the research suggests eating healthily may benefit women more than men.
“Consistent positive and larger effects were observed for … studies with predominantly or all female participants,” Flinders University‘s Dr Carly Moores, who was not involved in the study, told the AusSMC.
The researchers also looked at the effects of diet on symptoms of anxiety, but found no benefit of switching from junk food to a healthy diet.
And Dr Firth warned that dietary change should not be considered a replacement for existing proven therapies for depression, at least not yet.
“We definitely need more research to test if it can replace other therapies,” he said.
But dietary change could be used to complement existing therapies, according to Deakin University‘s Professor Michael Berk, who was not involved in the study: “Dietary advice could provide additional benefit to people over and above that provided by medication and psychotherapy. Diet could be added to exercise and smoking cessation as strategies to augment usual treatment,” he said.