People in Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal historically used olive oil, ate more fish than red meat, drank wine, ate nuts and enjoyed lots of fresh produce. The “Mediterranean” diet has been linked to a lower risk of heart and kidney disease and diabetes. Now a small but well-designed new study has concluded that in just 12 weeks, this diet can improve life for people with major depression and bad diets—people who don’t eat much fiber, lean protein or produce and do eat lots of sweets, processed meats and salty snacks. At the end of the trial, a third of a group of participants who worked one-on-one with a dietician met the criteria for recovery from their depression, compared to only eight percent in a control group.

People who followed the diet most closely improved the most, said Felice Jacka, Ph.D., a psychiatric epidemiologist and president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry. Losing weight or exercising more didn’t have the same effect. Jacka noted that only about half of people with depression get enough help from standard treatment. 

The study design excluded people with a diagnosis of bi-polar disease, a personality disorder or a substance abuse problem. Most of the participants were in therapy or on medication, or both, and Jacka warned people suffering from depression not to reject therapy or medication in favor of the diet. But if you pay more attention to diet, you could help yourself in many ways.    

The trouble is that changing eating patterns can be tough. In this study, participants met with a dietician in private one-hour sessions once a week for four weeks and then every other week for three weeks. In the control group, participants each met with a trained researcher who played cards or board games with them or talked about pleasant subjects, rather than trying to act like a therapist. (This kind of support is often used with “control groups” in studies of particular kinds of therapy. )

The diet recommendation, per day: six servings of vegetables; five servings of whole grains; three servings of fruit; two servings of unsweetened dairy; one serving of raw, unsalted nuts; and three tablespoons of olive oil.

Over the course of the week, you should eat only three servings of lean red meat, two servings of chicken, up to six eggs, and at least two servings of fish. Limit yourself to only three servings a week of any of these “extras”: sweets, refined cereal, fried food, fast food and soft drinks. So you’ll probably exceed your cheat quota for a week with one visit to a fast food restaurant if you eat fries, a hamburger and a soft drink. You can have two glasses of red wine a day, only with dinner.

The bottom line: If you have a taste for sweets and salt and hamburgers, think about asking your doctor, psychiatrist or psychotherapist for a referral to a dietician. It may be essential to work with a counsellor rather than try to make big diet changes on your own. If you (or someone you love) is in that state of mind when it seems like depression is your lot forever, remember that a better diet could also help you lose weight and should improve your overall health. Isn’t it worth a try?

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