|22 May, 2018

Poor diet can also lead to depression, warn experts

Healthy dietary changes can help avoid developing depression and improve the symptoms of those already living with the condition

Image used for illustrative purposes. An overweight woman sits on a chair in Times Square in New York. Image used for illustrative purpose.

Image used for illustrative purposes. An overweight woman sits on a chair in Times Square in New York. Image used for illustrative purpose.

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The impact of fast food on people's waistlines and physical health is well understood, but a poor diet can also lead to depression and other mental health problems, experts warn.

A recently published research has revealed that a Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts, fish, lean meat and olive oil, can actually improve the mental health of adults living with depression and be a more effective treatment than social support.

Dr Walid Abdul Hamid, a psychiatrist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, said: "Every day in the UAE, we see more and more fast food outlets opening, while takeaway meals and eating out have become a way of life for many people."


"The potential issues this is creating for people's long-term physical health is well documented, but it also threatens to create a mental health time-bomb unless we educate and encourage people to eat balanced diets," he said.

In one of the first trials of its kind, research published in an International Journal on Nutrition, Diet and the Nervous System, found that healthy dietary changes can help avoid developing depression and improve the symptoms of those already living with the condition.

Previously, the benefits of a Mediterranean diet were linked solely with physical health, such as protecting against coronary heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer.

Alaa Takidin, clinical dietitian/nutritionist at Canadian Specialist Hospital said: "The food we consume affects both our physical and mental health. Several studies have shown that diet and depression are linked to each other."

"People who consume a poor quality diet are more likely to suffer from symptoms of depression. However, people who incorporate fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish in their diet are less likely to be depressed," she said.

Dr Walid added: "This important research exposes just how far reaching the effects of a poor diet are."

"Until now, there was no proven link between high levels of processed fast foods, sugar and trans-fats and significant levels of depression and anxiety."

World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics show that Gulf countries have among the highest rates of obesity in the world.

Dr Walid supports the need to consider dietary counselling alongside psychotherapy, in the treatment and prevention of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. "In my experience, some patients living with depression have a tendency to opt for ready-made and fast foods. Switching to a healthy diet can also have a positive effect on self-esteem," he said.

"The psychological benefit of boosting self-esteem can supplement the physical benefit of a healthy diet, by strengthening the brain and therefore improving mental health."

To optimise mental health, the research also highlighted the benefits of foods which are nutrient dense in omega 3 fatty acids, Vitamins A, Thiamine, Folate, B6, B12 and minerals such as zinc, magnesium and iron. In addition, foods such as pistachios, garlic, sweet potatoes and salmon are proven to promote a healthy gut - crucial for boosting levels of serotonin, the 'happy' chemical in the brain.

Consuming junk food provides a sense of pleasure and happiness for the first couple of minutes as it causes a massive spike of serotonin levels in the body. However, eventually the person's energy levels start depleting, which triggers moodiness.

"The constant fluctuation in insulin levels may cause stress and lead to depression, obesity, diabetes and hypertension. According to a study, people who consume junk food and commercially baked goods are 51 per cent more likely to develop depression than those who eat little to none," said Alaa.

Vitamins are essential to lift up the mood. Foods rich in Folate, Vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 such as asparagus, beans, peas, egg yolks, meat, fish and poultry. Vitamin B6 helps the adrenal glands in producing adrenalin, which controls the body's response to stress.

Leafy greens, legumes, nuts and eggs that are packed with B vitamins help in producing neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which calms and reduces anxiety. Chromium rich foods such as onions and tomatoes regulate the blood sugar that in turn stabilises the mood.

Omega-3 fatty acids rich foods such as salmon, avocado and certain oils help protect against depression. Tryptophan rich foods such as poultry, red meat, shellfish and whole grains are great to lift the mood as it helps in production of serotonin.

Key ingredients of a Mediterranean diet

> Vegetables

> Lean meat

> Fish

> Olive oil

> Nuts

> Wholegrains

Nutrient dense and gut-friendly foods

> Greens, such as watercress, lettuce, spinach, salad leaf mustards, kale, broccoli

> Beetroot

> Herbs such as basil and parsley

> Vegetables, such as cauliflower and red cabbage

> Fruits, such as cherries, strawberries, lemons and bananas

> Cocoa

> Chestnuts

> Chia, sunflower and flax-seeds

> Oily fish

> Liver and offal

> Nuts

> Soybean

> Goat meat

> Lentils

> Onions

> Natural live yoghurt

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