Childhood stress and midlife depression in women: the influence of diet quality

Nutr Neurosci. 2022 Dec;25(12):2668-2679. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2021.2005994. Epub 2021 Nov 30.


Objective: How does diet quality (DQ) moderate associations between serious childhood stress exposures and adult depression?

Methods: We analyzed a cohort of Californian women at midlife (N=382; age 36-42). Serious childhood stress was defined as high perceived stress during childhood or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and/or household substance abuse. Women were dichotomized by current depression risk (high/low). The Healthy Eating Index (HEI)-2015 and Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI)-2010 measured current DQ from 3-day food records. Interactions between childhood stress exposures and DQ indices were tested one-by-one in multivariable Poisson regression models.

Results: Depression risks associated with endorsing all 3 ACEs differed by HEI and AHEI scores, as did risks associated with endorsing high perceived stress, physical abuse, and sexual abuse by AHEI. Where DQ moderated stress-depression associations, predicted prevalences of high depression risk did not vary with DQ among women endorsing the particular childhood stressors. However, among non-endorsing women, predicted high depression risk prevalences were significantly lower with higher DQ compared to in their stress-exposed counterparts - e.g. at the 90th AHEI percentile, depression prevalences were ∼20% among 'non-childhood-stressed' women versus 48.8% (high perceived stress, sexual abuse), 52.0% (physical abuse), and 73.0% (3 ACEs) in 'childhood-stressed' women.

Conclusions: Higher current DQ, particularly as aligned with chronic disease prevention guidelines, predicts lower depression risk in women with low childhood adversity. DQ did not buffer depression risk in women with high childhood stress. Further research is warranted to examine persistent pathways of depression risk and diet's role within.

Keywords: Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI)-2010; Healthy Eating Index (HEI)-2015; adverse childhood experiences; childhood stress; depression; diet quality; high perceived stress; moderation; nutritional psychiatry; psychosomatic health.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child Abuse*
  • Depression / epidemiology
  • Depressive Disorder*
  • Diet
  • Diet, Healthy
  • Female
  • Humans