Eating better a cheaper option for dealing with depression

Improving Health and Wellbeing

Support for switching to a Mediterranean-style diet is a more cost-effective way of treating clinical depression, according to a study published by Deakin researchers today.

Simple improvements to diet have been shown to be a cost-effective way to help treat depression, in a world-first study from Deakin University.

The study has built on what Deakin researchers had already shown last year, when they published ground-breaking evidence to demonstrate diet could be used to treat depression. This new paper shows it can also be a cost-effective way to help turn people’s lives around.

Economic analysis published in the journal BMC Public Health today is based on the Deakin Food & Mood Centre’s SMILES trial, which was first to show dietary changes could be used to help treat clinical depression.

Dr Mary Lou Chatterton, research fellow at Deakin Health Economics in the Centre for Population Health Research and lead author of the study, said for the intervention to be considered for use more widely, it needed to be proven cost-effective.

“Our new analysis looked at comparative costs in things like counselling, healthcare visits (or GP visits), medicine, food, travel, and lost productivity to evaluate whether a dietary intervention like this provides value for money,” Dr Chatterton said.

“What it showed was that when it came to the SMILES trial, those who received support to eat a Mediterranean-style diet had lower overall costs compared to the comparison group.”
Dr Mary Lou Chatterton
Dr Mary Lou Chatterton Centre for Population Health Research

“The lower cost was partially due to fewer health professional visits, such as to doctors, dentists, and psychologists. The participants on the dietary intervention also reported less time lost from unpaid activities such as housework and childcare,” Dr Chatterton said.

In addition to their usual treatment for depression, each participant on the dietary intervention was able to access up to seven face-to-face sessions of personalised dietary advice and nutrition counselling from an accredited practicing dietitian.

The economic analysis factored in the dietitians’ costs, as well as the price of food from the recommended Mediterranean diet. But food costs for this group were estimated at $26 dollars a week lower than what they would have normally been spending on food before starting the trial.

Overall, health-care costs were $856 lower and average societal costs were $2591 lower for the diet group over the 12 weeks of the trial.

“We already know that dietary counselling is cost-effective when it comes to the management of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” Dr Chatterton said.

“But these results indicate that providing support for people with depression to improve their diet may be a cost-effective strategy to reduce mental health symptoms too.

“There is a strong relationship between depression and the development of other chronic health conditions like these. So, a dietary improvement strategy could have multiple benefits that translate to wider health and wellbeing.”

SMILES creator and director of Deakin’s Food and Mood Centre Professor Felice Jacka, who is a co-author on the study, said diet wasn’t the only cause of or solution for depression but could support the overall health and functioning of people, in addition to treating their depressive symptoms.

“Given the very large burden of illness imposed by depression globally, including the massive cost to both the public purse and business, our economic analysis offers further support for taking a dietary approach to treating this burdensome condition.”
Professor Felice Jacka
Professor Felice Jacka Deakin University's Food and Mood Centre

“Mental health involves the whole body and good diet is key driver of health. So that means eating a balanced diet of wholefoods – fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, olive oil and fish – while steering clear of processed foods.

“Depression, like any other mental illness, has many causes and many drivers, but if we can identify things like diet that are relatively straightforward and cost-effective to address, then that should be underpinning all other strategies for prevention and treatment,” Professor Jacka said.

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Published by Deakin Research on 25 May 2018

Centre for Population Health Research

The Centre for Population Health Research (CPHR) contributes to health improvements for Australian and global populations through its extensive and diverse portfolio of research activities in public health, implementation, knowledge translation and advocacy, training and expert advisory services.