Think of it as a lifestyle-hack: A program teaching adults to consume healthier foods may help to prevent the onset of major depression.

In a two-year study, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found nutrition coaching superior to PST-PC, a seven-step alternative problem-solving therapy used in primary care and administerable by staff members with minimal training. In the study, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups for six to eight sessions of either program, supplemented by “booster” sessions at three, nine, and 15 months afterward.

By the end of the study, approximately nine percent of the participants in both groups had experienced an episode of major depression — though most others reported decreasing symptoms of depression.

"This project tells us that interventions in which people actively engage in managing their own life problems, such as financial or health issues, tend to have a positive effect on well-being and a protective effect against the onset of depression," study researcher Charles F. Reynolds III said in a statement.

"Participants in both arms experienced on average a four-point drop in depressive symptoms, with improvements sustained over two years of follow-up," the researchers wrote in the study. "Black and white participants demonstrated similar patterns of responses to PST-PC and dietary coaching on measures of depressive symptoms."

Yet, the researchers also noted the study’s limitations. They compared only the two alternative therapies against each other, without comparing either to standard care. Still, dietary coaching appeared effective in preventing the onset of major depression among adults with symptoms warning of the condition, Reynolds and his colleagues said. The therapy may help ameliorate symptoms of depression with social contact but also its “active-coping component,” which describes the self-empowering feeling of actively helping oneself.

“Both PST-PC and dietary coaching are potentially effective in protecting older black and white adults with subsyndromal depressive symptoms from developing episodes of major depression over two years,” Reynolds said. If confirmed by future study, “both interventions hold promise as scalable, safe, non-stigmatizing interventions for delaying or preventing episodes of major depression in the nation’s increasingly diverse older population.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 percent of Americans report feeling depressed, with middle-aged people 45 to 64 most likely to suffer the condition.

Source: Reynolds, Charles F., Thomas, Stephen B., Morse, Jennifer Q., Anderson, Stewart J., Albert, Steven, Dew, Mary Amanda. Early Intervention To Preempt Major Depression Among Older Black And White Adults. Psychiatric Services. 2014.