No significant effects on anxiety were observed from the subgroups of dietary interventions that primarily aimed to improve nutrition (n = 6, n = 869, g = 0.397, 95% CI = −0.17 to 0.97 p = .174) or those aiming to reduce bodyweight (n = 4, n = 1068, g = 0.058, 95% CI = −0.07 to 0.18, p = .366). A significant reduction in anxiety was observed from those aiming to reducing fat intake (g = 0.349, 95% CI = 0.15 to 0.55, p = .001), but the result must be interpreted with caution given the small number of studies in this subgroup (n = 2, n = 383). Studies specifying the involvement of a nutritional professional in dietary interventions did observe a significant, small positive effect on symptoms of anxiety (n = 9, n = 2235, g = 0.273, 95% CI = 0.0.02 to 0.53, p = .034), whereas those who did not report dietitian/nutritionist involvement had no effects (n = 2, n = 85, g = 0.242, 95% CI = −0.17 to 0.67, p = .247).
As with the depression outcomes, subgroups of studies using mostly (>75%) female samples observed significant positive effects on anxiety from dietary interventions (n = 6, n = 965, g = 0.211, 95% CI = 0.09 to 0.34, p = .001), whereas those in mostly male samples observed nonsignificant negative effects (g = −0.19, 95% CI = −0.42 to 0.04, p = .107). Inspection of both individual and pooled study effects revealed that dietary interventions in mostly/entirely female samples consistently had a positive direction of effect on both symptoms of depression (Figure 2A) and anxiety (Figure 2B). Conversely, effects of dietary interventions in the mostly (or entirely) male samples were consistently negative for both depression and anxiety (Figure 2A) and anxiety (Figure 2B).
To our knowledge, this is the first meta-analysis to examine the efficacy of dietary interventions for depression and anxiety. Our systematic search identified 16 independent studies, reporting outcomes of dietary intervention RCTs across 45,826 participants. The main analysis found that dietary interventions had a small positive effect on depressive symptoms (g = 0.275, 95% CI = 0.10 to 0.45), which remained significant even after adjusting for study quality and publication bias. However, only one of the 16 trials used a sample with primary diagnosis of clinical depression (17), with all the remaining 15 studies investigating effects of dietary interventions on symptoms of depression in nonclinical depression samples. A further limitation to this is the publication bias found in the primary analysis. However, the effects of dietary interventions were still statistically significant after correcting for this. In addition, our subgroup analyses found that positive effects of dietary interventions for depressive symptoms were observed in both studies using inactive control conditions (g = 0.308, p = .038) and active control conditions (g = 0.174, p = .035), indicating the beneficial effects of dietary interventions on mood extend beyond just general intervention effects.
A final limitation is the significant heterogeneity in the meta-analyses, likely stemming from the broad inclusion criteria. Because substantial heterogeneity was also present in the subgroup analyses, this indicates that significant between-study differences in dietary effect sizes also existed when grouping by specific intervention types. Thus, it was difficult to establish the most effective components of dietary interventions for depression, because we found no significant differences between dietary interventions primarily aimed at (a) reducing bodyweight, (b) improving nutrition, or (c) decreasing dietary fat intake. However, this is perhaps unsurprising, because although the primary aims of the interventions did vary, the actual content of the all dietary intervention generally hold some common features, such as aiming to reduce the intake of “junk” foods (e.g., high-fat, high-sugar discretionary foods and takeaways), while replacing these with high-fiber, nutrient-dense alternatives, such as vegetables.
The mechanisms through which these dietary changes can benefit mental health have yet to be fully established. However, diet may act via several pathways that are implicated in mental health. These include pathways related to oxidative stress, inflammation, and mitochondrial dysfunction, which are disrupted in people with mental disorders (43). Gut microbiota dysbiosis has also been implicated because of emerging research demonstrating involvement of the microbiome in the modulation of stress response, immune function, neurotransmission, and neurogenesis (44). A healthy diet typically contains a wide variety of bioactive compounds that can beneficially interact with these pathways. For example, vegetables and fruits contain, in addition to beneficial vitamins, minerals and fiber, a high concentration of various polyphenols that seem to be associated with reduced rates of depression in limited observational studies, potentially because of their anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and prebiotic properties (45,46). Furthermore, vitamins (e.g., B vitamins), fatty acids (e.g., omega 3 fatty acids), minerals (e.g., zinc, magnesium), and fiber (e.g., resistant starch) as well as other bioactive components (e.g., probiotics), which are typically abundant in healthy dietary patterns, may also be protective from mental illness (44). Along with increasing the intake of beneficial nutrients, dietary interventions may also impact on mental well-being by reducing the consumption of unhealthy food associated with increased risk for depression, such as processed meats, refined carbohydrates, and other inflammatory foods (8,9). Unhealthy diets are also high in other compounds that may negatively affect these pathways. For example, elements commonly found in processed foods such as saturated fatty acids, artificial sweeteners, and emulsifiers may alter the gut microbiome, which may activate inflammatory pathways (47).
Our results showed that dietary interventions that primarily targeted weight loss also significantly reduced symptoms of depression. The psychological benefits of weight loss diets observed in our meta-analysis could be linked with reductions in obesity, because there is robust evidence from epidemiological data that overweight status is consistently associated with an elevated risk of depression (48,49). Indeed, all four of the weight loss interventions included in our meta-analysis were conducted in overweight/obese samples. Although only three of these trials examined the correlations between mental health and weight loss, these consistently found that individuals who lost most weight during the trial also had the greatest improvements in measures of psychological well-being (16,25,31). Previous trials of multicomponent weight loss interventions (which were ineligible for our meta-analysis) have also shown that reductions in depressive symptoms following health behavior programs are significantly correlated with reductions in bodyweight (50). The leading hypothesis for why obesity is associated with depression is through inflammation, because this is a core feature of depressive illness (51) and excessive adipose tissue increases the production of proinflammatory cytokines (52). Indeed, recent preclinical research has shed further light on pathways through which obesogenic diets impacts on mental health, demonstrating that dietary-induced obesity reduces insulin signaling in the brain and increases neuroinflammation, resulting in depressive-like behaviors in rodent models (53). This is supported by recent research in human adolescent samples, which has demonstrated that the protective effects of healthy diet on depression risk is conferred through reduced body mass index and associated inflammation (10). However, it is important to note that the significant effects of weight loss diets on symptoms of depression in this meta-analysis were all observed in nonclinical samples (i.e., individuals with mostly subthreshold depression). In those with clinical depression, the recent SMILES trial showed large positive effects of a dietary intervention in MDD without altering the weight of participants (17). Instead, the trial found that changes in diet quality for the 12-week period correlated closely with changes in depressive symptoms. This is in accordance with the weight of evidence in the extensive observational literature showing that the association between diet quality and major depression exists even independently of body weight (7) and the emerging evidence from preclinical studies indicating poor diet can also influence brain health and function in absence of obesity (54).
None of our prespecified analyses found notable effects from dietary interventions on symptoms of anxiety. This could be due to a “floor effect,” whereby the low levels of anxiety in the nonclinical samples examined to date make it difficult to observe any notable effects of dietary interventions. Indeed, in the single trial to use a sample of individuals with diagnosed affective disorders (although of major depression), the participants also had borderline clinical levels of anxiety at baseline, and these symptoms were significantly reduced by the dietary intervention (17). Future RCTs are required to confirm or refute the effects of dietary interventions on those with clinically diagnosed anxiety disorders.
A key issue in clinical applicability of our findings is the lack of studies in clinically depressed samples meaning that most evidence of dietary interventions reducing depressive symptoms only applies to nonclinical depression to date. Although the SMILES trial was the first to examine the efficacy of dietary interventions in a clinically depressed sample, another more recent RCT (the HELFIMED trial) has also indicated the efficacy of a Mediterranean diet for treating depression (55). However, this study was ineligible for our meta-analysis because of the intervention also including fish oil supplements (an active treatment for depression) (56), thus making it impossible to determine whether reductions in depression were due to dietary changes or fish oil treatment. Furthermore, a recent economic evaluation of the SMILES trial provides support for the cost-effectiveness of such an approach to treating depression, with participants in the dietary support condition generating substantially reduced societal and health sector costs compared with the social support condition (57). However, it is important to consider that, to date, no trials have yet compared the efficacy of dietary interventions to antidepressant medications. Thus, dietary intervention can only be considered an adjunctive strategy for managing depressive symptoms at this point.
Nonetheless, the significant benefits observed for subclinical/secondary depression are also of considerable value. The benign nature of dietary interventions, along with the established benefits of diet for physical health, suggests that dietary improvement could be an ideal option for low-intensity treatment or for individuals to adopt themselves as a self-management approach for reducing subclinical depressive symptoms. Furthermore, diet seems to improve depression even when used alongside other more established self-management strategies, such as physical activity (50), because pooled data from studies examining “diet plus exercise” combinations showed significant additional benefits compared with exercise alone. However, this result should be interpreted with caution because of the low number of studies included in the subgroup analysis (n = 2, n = 276). Our subgroup analyses also indicated that interventions delivered by registered dietitians and professional nutritionists have significant benefits for both depression and anxiety, whereas those delivered by other individuals (e.g., research staff) did not. Although preliminary, the finding from this subgroup analysis is in line with a previous research showing that interventions that use dietitians have significantly better effects on weight management in severe mental illness compared with those who use other types of health professionals (58,59).
Our meta-analysis also found that studies using primarily female samples observed significant mental health benefits from dietary interventions (for depression and anxiety), whereas those with male samples did not, even indicating a trend toward a negative effect (Figure 2). Again, because these subgroup analyses consisted of only few studies for each sex (n = 8 studies in females, n = 4 studies in males), definitive conclusions cannot be drawn from these data. However, these findings could be potentially be explained by three sex-specific factors. First, because females have a higher presence of mood disorders across the population, this may create greater scope for a significant benefit from dietary interventions (60). Second, differences in dietary effects on mood could be linked to sex differences in metabolism and body composition, whereby women may be more responsive to diets that alter glucose or fat metabolism (61). Third, sociocultural sex differences in expectations surrounding diet and health beliefs may influence outcomes of dietary interventions. For example, men rate certain health behaviors, including diet, as less important than women, have lower nutrition knowledge, and women seek nutrition counseling more frequently than men (62,63). Thus, women may be more likely than males to adopt health behaviors as recommended. Future research should examine the extent to which sex differences in adherence to dietary interventions explain the differential effects between sexes.
Beyond sex differences, future research should also aim to determine the influence of several other confounding factors, which have so far been overlooked. One key factor for future research to examine is the interaction between dietary interventions with psychotropic medications. Because depressive symptoms were used as secondary outcomes in most studies here and conducted in nonclinical samples, few studies have examined this to date. However, preliminary insights on this issue can be gained by comparing trials, which excluded individuals taking antidepressants, with those studies that included high proportions of antidepressant users. For instance, the single trial of an MDD sample (in which >75% of the intervention group were taking antidepressants) observed large, significant benefits of dietary intervention compared with the counseling control group (17), whereas the two trials that specifically excluded individuals taking antidepressants from their analyses observed no significant differences between dietary interventions and problem-solving therapy for symptoms of depression (27,28). Other important confounding factors to be examined in future research include medical comorbidities (particularly cardiometabolic complications) and substance abuse, both of which could modify the impact of dietary interventions on mental well-being.
The consistently significant and positive effects of dietary interventions on depressive symptoms observed across all random-effects meta-analyses, even in high-quality studies, strongly suggests that diet can play a role in the treatment and also self-management of depressive symptoms across the population. Because pooled effect sizes were mostly classified as “small,” further research is warranted to distil both the key components and mechanistic actions of diet for mental health to develop more refined, targeted, and thus perhaps more effective interventions. In addition, given the potentially cumulative effects of diet and exercise together, future research should explore the modification of diet in concert with multiple other life-style modifications to provide a more integrated approach (64). Finally, further research should also be directed toward determining cost-effective and sustainable methods for providing dietary interventions within mental healthcare services, along with developing and evaluating public health schemes for dietary improvement across the population.
The authors thank Dr. Elizabeth Williams (Human Nutrition Unit, University of Sheffield) for kindly providing additional data required for the analyses.
Source of Funding and Conflicts of Interest: J.F. is supported by a Blackmores Institute Fellowship. W.M. is funded by a Deakin University Dean's Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. F.N.J. is supported by an NHMRC Career Development Fellowship (2) (APP1108125). J.S. is funded by an NHMRC Research Fellowship (APP1125000). S.T. is funded by the South Eastern Sydney Local Health District in a clinical position. B.S. is supported by the Health Education England and the National Institute for Health Research HEE/NIHR ICA Programme Clinical Lectureship (ICA-CL-2017-03-001). The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the National Institute for Health Research, or the Department of Health and Social Care. F.J. has received grant/research support from the Brain and Behaviour Research Institute, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Australian Rotary Health, the Geelong Medical Research Foundation, the Ian Potter Foundation, Eli Lilly, Meat and Livestock Australia, Woolworths Limited, The Fernwood Foundation, The Wilson Foundation, GMHBA, and The University of Melbourne and has received speakers honoraria from Sanofi-Synthelabo, Janssen Cilag, Servier, Pfizer, Health Ed, Network Nutrition, Angelini Farmaceutica, Eli Lilly, and Metagenics. J.S. has received either presentation honoraria, travel support, clinical trial grants, book royalties, or independent consultancy payments from: Integria Healthcare & MediHerb, Pfizer, Scius Health, Key Pharmaceuticals, Taki Mai, Bioceuticals & Blackmores, Soho-Flordis, Healthworld, HealthEd, HealthMasters, Kantar Consulting, Research Reviews, Elsevier, Chaminade University, International Society for Affective Disorders, Complementary Medicines Australia, SPRIM, Terry White Chemists, ANS, Society for Medicinal Plant and Natural Product Research, Sanofi-Aventis, Omega-3 Centre, the National Health and Medical Research Council, CR Roper Fellowship.
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