Does your pregnancy diet affect your risk of developing postnatal depression?

We often hear of the importance of eating well during pregnancy, but the focus of these health messages is usually the developing baby. Women are told to avoid certain foods and to eat plenty of other foods for the sake of the baby. These are good messages, of course, but could what women eat during pregnancy also be important for their own mental health? Could diet in pregnancy actually impact on a woman’s risk of developing postnatal depression?

Recent studies have shown that diet is important for mental health. A ‘healthy diet’ has been shown to offer some protection from mental illness, and an ‘unhealthy diet’ has been associated with worse mental health. This makes sense, because our brains need certain vitamins and minerals, plentiful in healthy foods, to function at their best.


This is a growing area of interest for scientists at the moment, and more and more research is being undertaken to better understand exactly how food affects mood. But it’s not straightforward. One of the issues facing researchers is the question of which way around the food and mood relationship goes – is it feeling low that leads people to make poor food choices, or is it the poor food choices that leads to feeling low?

Pregnancy is a time that food is particularly important. Making and growing a baby is intense work and there is an increased demand for nutrients, just at the time that morning sickness and low energy can lead to less than ideal food choices!

Could choosing a salad at this crucial time make a difference to your mental health?(Image via iStock.)

Pregnancy is also a time that mood is very important. Postnatal depression is more common than we would like to think, with 15-20 per cent of Australian women experiencing significant levels of depression and/or anxiety after the birth of their baby. Obviously, postnatal depression is highly distressing for women and their families, as most expect that becoming a mum will bring happiness.

Surprisingly, we don’t know a huge amount about why some women are affected and some are not. There are some known risk factors, like a personal history of depression and a ‘perfectionistic’ personality, but what we know about risk factors doesn’t always add up. Some women with risk factors don’t develop problems, and other women with no known risk factors go on to develop postnatal depression. While awareness of postnatal depression and anxiety has grown in the past decade, research hasn’t offered anything new in the same time frame. Very little has changed in terms of prevention and treatment.

Listen: Holly Wainwright talks to ballet dancer, Amy Harris about bouncing back after the birth of her first child on I Don't Know How She Does It.

As a psychologist who specialises in perinatal mental health, I’d like to know more. I’d like to offer women some up to date and interesting ideas on looking after their mental health during pregnancy and postnatally. Because the fact is, current treatments for postnatal depression, while effective, are not always available or suitable for all women.

To this end, I am conducting study with the University of South Australia, to look at diet and mental health during pregnancy and the postnatal months. I have designed the study to be completely online, so that it is easy for women to take part. Participation involves completing four online questionnaires at different times (two during pregnancy and two in the months after the birth). The questionnaires will each take about 15 minutes to complete.

The reason I am asking women to complete four questionnaires is to try to address the issue of which way around any food and mood relationship goes. I am looking for about 500 women to take part and ensure that the research is good quality- good research only happens when lots of people take part!

Angie Willcocks is a psychologist specialising in perinatal mental health. To find out more about the study visit this website or learn more about Angie here