Can healthier eating improve mental health in people with depression? Research says ‘yes’

Greetings Healthy Boilers!

Happy National Nutrition Month! For this issue, we are focusing on nutrition and mental health. The reviewed article explores the relationship between diet quality and mental health, including depression, stress and anxiety. For a brief summary and take-home message, keep on reading and enjoy!

The Article

Parletta N, Zarnowiecki D, Cho J, Wilson A, Bogomolova S, et al. A Mediterranean-style dietary intervention supplemented with fish oil improves diet quality and mental health in people with depression: A randomized controlled trial (HELFIMED). Nutritional Neuroscience. 2019; 22(7):474-487. 


The goal of this study was to determine the effects of a Mediterranean-style diet on mental health and quality of life in people with depression. This study was a single-blind, randomized control trial with two treatment groups. One group was the intervention group that followed a Mediterranean-style diet (MedDiet) and the second group was the Social Group. The MedDiet group participated in cooking classes for three months and were given fish oil supplements for six months. The Social group attended social gatherings for three months. A depression scale, quality of life questionnaire, Mediterranean diet questionnaire and a simple dietary questionnaire were completed by all participants at baseline, three months and six months. The MedDiet group had a statistically significant increase in Mediterranean diet score, consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts and legumes from baseline to three months compared to the Social Group. This was also maintained at 6 months. The MedDiet group also reported greater improvements in the depression scale as well as the quality-of-life questionnaire. This research article supports the idea that healthier eating improves mental health in people with depression.

Take-Home Message

The main take-home message is that mental health can be improved with not only eating a more Mediterranean-style diet, but more simply, an increase in vegetable diversity, fruit, nuts and legume intake. Therefore, if changing your entire eating style to Mediterranean-style diet is overwhelming and not something you are willing to do, no worries! Try to increase healthier foods into your diet and decrease unhealthy snack foods and fatty meats. Focus on getting plenty of fruits and vegetables. Get a variety of whole foods and try produce you have never had before! These small efforts will eventually turn into a healthy lifestyle change and help you feel better mentally too.

Making a Lifestyle Change

With the improvements in mental health through a healthier diet, you might find yourself asking “How do I make a lifestyle change for my mental health?” or “How do I change the way I am eating?” Making a lifestyle change is not easy, but it can be done. Here are some tips to help get you started on your health journey:

  1. Start with small goals. Setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely) goals will help you achieve the larger goal. For example, if your ultimate goal is to lose weight or help manage depression or anxiety, a SMART goal might be “I will eat two servings of fruit per day three times a week. One serving of fruit will be consumed during breakfast and the other serving will be at lunch.” These smaller SMART goals will help you build habits little by little to help you achieve that big goal.

  2. Get an accountability buddy. If you are wanting to exercise more, ask a friend to be your workout buddy. If you have a wearable fitness device, such as a Fitbit or an Apple watch, compete against yourself or others virtually to get 10,000 steps a day. Having a person on this journey with you or just having someone you can turn to for support can do wonders for achieving your goals!

  3. Track your nutrition. Sign up on MyFitnessPal, Lose It!, or some other food tracking app and start tracking your food. You may be surprised at how well or poorly you actually eat! Being honest with yourself on where you are at with nutrition will help you identify gaps so you can start to narrow in on what needs to be improved.

  4. Give yourself some grace. You may have some meals that you didn’t have time to make, so you stopped at a fast-food restaurant to pick up something quick or there may be days that you didn’t have time to work out. It’s okay. Give yourself some grace. Don’t stress about “falling off the bandwagon.” Start fresh and be positive for the next day or meal. After all, we’re only human.

And don’t forget, the dietitian and health coaches at the Center for Healthy Living (CHL) and the health coach on the Purdue Fort Wayne campus are available to partner with you on this journey! Appointments can be scheduled in-person or via telehealth. Call 765-494-0111 (CHL) or 260-481-6651 (Purdue Fort Wayne) to schedule. 

A Case for Family Meals

The authors of the paper discussed how both the MedDiet group and the Social group had improved mental health. This may be due to the fact that both groups experienced social support throughout the intervention. However, since there was a greater improvement in the MedDiet group, the authors also speculate that there was an element of not just social support, but also a community created while learning new culinary skills and preparing meals. The authors conclude the article by suggesting that cooking together more and eating family meals have the potential to be important tools in healthcare. 

Preparing, cooking and eating meals together as a family benefits adults and children both emotionally and health-wise. Spending time in the kitchen encourages planning and learning new ways to cook or prepare meals. It is an opportunity to discover new fruits, vegetables and other foods or experiment with a new culinary technique or equipment. This family time can open up lines of communication and provide the emotional support that children, teens and adults need, especially for those that may be suffering from depression or anxiety.

Tip: If you’re wanting to create more family time and don’t have time to grocery shop or don’t know what to cook, try HelloFresh, Blue Apron or any other meal service that will deliver ingredients and the recipe right to your door!


Challenge yourself to eat healthier and move more. Try increasing the number of fruits and vegetables you eat per day. Introduce new ways of preparing vegetables into your diet, for example, mashed cauliflower or adding kale to smoothies. Experiment with a fish recipe and try some seafood that you haven’t eaten or don’t eat often. Add some nuts or seeds to your yogurt or oatmeal in the morning. Spend more time in the kitchen and eat less take-out. Focus on improving your nutrition this month and remember to reach out for support if you need it! Happy eating!