1 March 2018


A new trial from Deakin University shows improving diet quality helps treat major depression. “We’ve known for some time that there is a clear association between the quality of people’s diets and their risk for depression,” says Professor Felice Jacka, president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research. “This is the case across countries, cultures and age groups, with healthy diets associated with reduced risk, and unhealthy diets associated with increased risk for depression. However, this is the first randomised controlled trial to directly test whether improving diet quality can actually treat clinical depression.”

The researchers recruited adults with a major depressive disorder and randomly assigned them to receive over a three-month period either social support (helpful for people with depression), or support from a clinical dietitian. The dietary group were given information and help to improve their diet especially on increasing vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, fish, lean red meats, olive oil and nuts, and reducing sweets, refined cereals, fried food, fast-food, processed meats and sugary drinks.

Participants in the dietary intervention group had a much greater reduction in their depressive symptoms over the three-month period, compared to those in the social support group. At the end of the trial, a third of those in the dietary support group met criteria for remission of major depression, compared to 8 percent of those in the social support group. “These results were not explained by changes in physical activity or body weight, but were closely related to the extent of dietary change,” says Jacka. “Those who adhered more closely to the dietary program experienced the greatest benefit to their depression symptoms. Importantly, depression also increases the risk of and, in turn, is also increased by common physical illnesses such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Successfully improving the quality of patients’ diets would also benefit these illnesses.”

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Pregnant women tend to be overwhelmed with unsolicited advice on a whole range of topics including “eat this, don’t eat that” dietary advice. Recently, a slew of fad diet books promoting low carb diets has cranked up the confusion about what to eat when you are expecting several notches by suggesting that by “reducing the intake of carbohydrates, [people] could significantly improve their health and well-being”. To set the record straight, a pregnant woman absolutely needs nutrient-rich sources of carbohydrate (what we call “good carbs”) in the right amounts to ensure she is meeting her own nutritional needs as well as her baby’s.

Prof Clare Collins and University of Newcastle researchers tackled six questions they are endlessly asked about eating carbs during pregnancy in a recent piece in The Conversation. They are now recruiting pregnant women in Australia (12–22 weeks gestation) to take part in an online survey to learn more about their nutrition knowledge and eating habits. The survey takes about 20–25 minutes and participants go into the draw to win one of four $100 gift cards. You can find out more about the survey and sign up to take part HERE.

Read more:
Six common questions about eating carbs during pregnancy answered

Diabetes is a disease that develops when the body either stops producing the hormone insulin (type 1) or when the insulin it produces is not working properly (type 2). Insulin sensitivity describes how sensitive the body is to the effects of insulin, which is why it’s a key risk marker for diabetes. Someone who is insulin sensitive will require smaller amounts of insulin to lower blood glucose levels than someone who has low sensitivity to insulin.

A recent randomized controlled trial compared three everyday beverage choices on insulin sensitivity: semi-skimmed milk (recommended in dietary guidelines) with sugar-sweetened and “artificially” (intensely) sweetened soft drinks. Water was the non-calorie control. While the researchers hypothesized that drinking milk would improve insulin sensitivity and risk markers of cardiovascular disease in people who were overweight and obese, that’s not what they found. After 6 months’ intake of milk, or sugar-sweetened or intensely sweetened soft drinks, or water, there was no difference in risk markers for type 2 diabetes in the participants who remained weight stable throughout, suggesting the results were also independent of body weight.

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In February, we wrote about how a dog can prompt you to be more active, help calm jagged nerves, and reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. Interacting with birds is also good for us, mentally and physically, and people like to do this is by feeding the birds in their garden, “a habit that’s natural and extremely popular around the world,” says Prof Daryl Jones.

Feeding Birds

[Bird feeding] is a really important topic, says Jones, “because of the potential impact we’re having. We’re genuinely changing the shape of the wildlife community that lives in the city with us. These things we must not shy away from – if you are hosting people coming to your place to feed, you don’t allow them to go away sick. You are really, really, careful about how nutrient wise the food is and how clean the plate is. The same goes for birds.

As for a diet of bread and sugar or honey, traditional lorikeet fare in Australia, “that’s not a good idea at all,” says Jones, “as it can become very easily tainted with bacteria and fungi and make the birds ill. Probably the most important suggestion for bird feeders is to avoid mince and bread altogether; the mince is sticky, fatty and has too little calcium; far better is dry or tinned pet food. And bread is terrible for any animal apart from humans.”

Commenting on backyard bird feeding, Grainne Cleary, a researcher at Deakin University who led the Australian bird feeding and watering study, says “we need to understand its effect and provide guidelines to those who regularly feed birds in their backyards or urban settings.” She adds that making healthy food for birds more available on supermarket shelves, rather than just an ordinary cockatiel mix, will drastically improve bird health.

Darryl’s golden rules:

Cleanliness. Sweep up any left overs and spray feeder dish with a mix of water and vinegar. Dry and then add new feed. Daily.
Provide a snack. Not a meal. A little bit of healthy, appropriate food goes a long, long, way.
Never feed birds away from your home. Feeding bread to the ducks and swans at the park is a definite no-no.
Enjoy – because really, you're feeding the birds for yourself, not for their benefit.

Read more: 
Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study 
Urban Bird Feeding: Connecting People with Nature
To feed or not to feed
Bird Feeding Takes Wing in U.S., With Summer Meals, Designer Seed 
• Darryl Jones: The Birds at My Table. Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why It Matters (publishing March 2018)