At this year’s American Psychiatric Association meeting in San Francisco, just completed, Dr Drew Ramsey, MD, talked about three large studies suggesting that what we eat does have a large impact on our moods.

He reviewed Sanchez-Villega’s large study of Spanish college students (1). In this well-known study, she and her colleagues found that one’s chances of becoming depressed while in college were directly related to how they ate. She followed over 10,000 student for four years. Those eating the traditional Spanish diet, emphasizing fruits, vegetables, and fish, were quite unlikely to become depressed. Those who ate American-style fast foods were more at risk.

Akbaraly and his associates followed about 3,500 British subjects for five years(2). They looked at food intake and divided the subjects into three groups, the first eating fresh, natural style foods, the second a mix, and the third group primarily eating prepared foods, the kind made in factories. The whole group was free of depression at the start. But, using the CES-D, Akbaraly found that depression is very likely to develop among people eating the fast, convenient food diet. For several years I have emphasized Sanchez-Villeaga’s studies (she has several) and Akbaraly’s large study.

The third study was one I had not read. Felice Jacka and associates studied over 7,000 Australian youth, between ages ten and fourteen(3). Once again, they find a very strong relationship between the kind of food eaten and mood. The teens who ate the type of diet with fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes/ pulse, diets that emhasized healthier eating, were consitently happier. They had significantly better scores on a mood checklist, and the fewer veggies, fruits, and so on that the children tend to eat, the lower their mental health scores. Eating the lest healthy foods raises the risk of depression by 79%.

Dr Ramsey said that physicians and psychiatrists should address eating issues with all patients. He advises eating more beans, more mushrooms, vegetables, substituting fresh fruit for rich desserts, and when eating meat, eat grass-fed beef.

I’ve been saying all that for several years, so I am pleased. I am ahead of the curve on this topic. When I wrote my book on happiness (Enjoy Life: Healing with happiness) I didn’t emphasize that, and I think if I were to do an updated version, I’d have a chapter on food! The Mediterranean diet, the South Beach Diet, or the DASH diet are all likely to raise mood and support high quality of life. They are all pretty similar. There is a slow starch version of the DASH diet for weight loss. It looks somewhat like the South Beach Diet. There is a convergence happening.

Ramsey actually missed an excellent study by Blanchflower and his group(4). They surveyed 80,000 Brits. (Why aren’t these studies being done in the US? Is it because there aren’t enough healthy eaters here?) Mood rises with the servings of fruits and veggies each day, with 7 or 8 helpings being the point where you get the most emotional value for your food dollar. OK, the most for your food Pounds, I know, I know, it is Britain.

The point here is that eating anything but food in its most natural state inflames the body. Inflammation takes a toll on mood. How far can we take this? Try cutting out drinking anything sweetened by sugar or by artificial sweeteners, for one. Sweet drinks create inflammation. Don’t eat anything made in a factory. When you look at your plate, you should see natural colors. Rainbow diet.


1. Sánchez-Villegas A, Delgado-Rodríguez M, Alonso A, et al. Association of the Mediterranean dietary pattern with the incidence of depression: the Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra/University of Navarra follow-up (SUN) cohort. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66:1090-1098. Available at http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=210386.
2. Akbaraly TN, Brunner EJ, Ferrie JE, et al. Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. British J Psychiatry. 2009;195:408-413. Available at http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/195/5/408.long.
3. Jacka FN, Kremer PJ, Leslie ER, et al. Associations between diet quality and depressed mood in adolescents: results from the Australian Healthy Neighbourhoods Study. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2010;44:435-442. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20397785.
4. Blanchflower, et al. Social Indicators Research, in press. Available at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/pressreleases/7-a-day_for_happiness/

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2 Responses

  1. martha vallery
    | Reply

    Let’s always remember to acknowledge the fact that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. In this case, maybe people who are already depressed or prone to depression are more likely to choose processed foods. Maybe people whose social networks encourage/facilitate choices of traditional/healthier foods are protected from depression by those social factors. I agree w/ recommendation to choose healthy foods; only cautioning against oversimplifyingresearch findings.

    • Dr.J

      This is a hard question. You can sometimes get a pretty good idea of causation through correlation studies, but they have to be repeated and other factors partialed out.

      For example, tobacco use causes cancer. The original studies were all correlational, but they were right.

      Especially the Blanchflower study starts to demonstrate the dose-response relationship, which strengthens the hypnothesis, where they are doing a stepwise regression analysis, so it starts to get more powerful.

      But how can we raise a generation of kids randomly assigned to junk food vs. fresh veggie-based food? So it is a real challenge.


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