Eating More Healthily Can Help Seniors Beat Depression

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
September 29, 2015

Diet coaching can prevent mild blues from getting worse.

Maybe you know your mother is bored and lonely and eating cookies all day, but you haven’t had luck encouraging her to socialize more and eat fewer sweets. You might ask her doctor to have a word with her about her diet. Even better, also see if she’ll meet with a diet coach or group. For older adults, especially, research suggests, diet coaching can prevent mild depressions from getting worse.

Older adults with mild depression have about a 20 to 25 percent chance of developing major depression over the next year, which can cause other health problems as well. In the recent study, mildly depressed seniors were randomly assigned to either therapy or dietary coaching. The researchers considered the group getting diet coaching as a control since these participants would be receiving regular attention like the therapy patients but not specific help with their emotions or social problems.

After answering questions about their diet, people in this group received instructions on how to make it healthier, by cooking more often at home, and eating fewer processed foods and less fat. Six half-hour sessions over nine weeks were followed by booster sessions at longer intervals over the next two years. Most participants kept up with the visits, although generally patients drop out of programs treating minor depression.

To everyone’s surprise, after six weeks the patients that were counselled about their diet on average had a 40 to 50 percent reduction in depression symptoms, and the results lasted for two years. This compared favorably with many therapeutic interventions to prevent serious depression.

Why might that be? A variety of studies suggest that healthy eating can help stave off depression. Eating a variety of vegetables, for example, helps maintain a healthy balance of micro-organisms in the intestines. A growing body of science is showing how our gut affects our moods. Eating healthily is preventive medicine.

The researchers profiled a 71-year-old widow, “Ms. J,” who had been diagnosed with mild depression after she was disabled with chronic lymphoid leukemia. She was fighting with her son, who was using crack cocaine, and living with her along with his girlfriend. She had also gained 22 pounds over the previous two years. In the diet coaching program, she received basic advice to eat more nutritious food with fewer calories, drink water, and exercise. Ms. J decided to cook at home more often, do more baking rather than frying, cut back on snacking junk foods, and rely less on protein shakes. She received a copy of “Heart-Healthy Home Cooking, African American Style,” and expressed her appreciation for its suggestions.

By the fifth session, she reported that her cholesterol level had dropped into a healthy range, and that she was moving from whole milk to 2 percent and from butter to margarine. Her white cell count had also increased, and she and her doctor were in a period of watchful waiting to see if this would signal a recurrence of her chronic lymphoid leukemia. About four months into the program, her leukemia recurred and she began chemotherapy. But her scores on the Beck Depression Inventory dropped from 14 to 8 over the next two years, along with her body mass index. See a psychiatrist or take the “BDI” and score it yourself to decide whether you are at risk of depression. A score of 11 to 16 is considered a “mild mood disturbance” and from 1 to 10 normal.

Other research has supported the idea that diet coaching can stave off depression. Overweight people who are already more depressed than Ms. J also often see their moods improve when they lose weight. It makes sense — we all like to see tangible results of our efforts and to feel that we’re doing our best to take care of ourselves. The surprise here is just how big a mood booster a change in diet can be, even when life isn’t easy.


April 07, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN