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Is your diet making you depressed?

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How processed, sugary foods can put you in a slump — plus what to eat for a mood boost.
Written by Kim Robinson
Updated on January 5, 2022

Everyone knows that what we eat affects us physically. Just hang around a hangry toddler. Or think about that sluggish feeling you have after polishing off a huge bowl of ice cream. (Trust us, we’ve all been there.)

But it turns out that the adage “you are what you eat” extends to your mental health, too.

When it comes to battling depression, many people benefit from talk therapy and medication. (We could help you save up to 80% on the prescriptions you need most. Simply show this free discount card to your pharmacist.)

Yet more and more research points to a link between diet and depression. For example, a trial out of Australia found that people with depression who had 7 sessions with a dietitian had a significant reduction in symptoms after 12 weeks compared with those who received no nutrition guidance.

Add to that a 2019 study published in Nutritional Neuroscience. It found that a Mediterranean-style diet (full of fruits, veggies, legumes and whole grains and fewer red meats and unhealthy snacks) reduced symptoms of depression. The group that followed the Mediterranean-style diet (supplemented with fish oil) and took cooking workshops saw a greater reduction in depression symptoms after 3 months than the group that attended only social support groups.

So could food be a tool to help boost happiness and mental well-being? Let’s dig in.

How are diet and depression connected?

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. On the one hand, some studies have linked depression with eating highly processed foods that exceed the recommended limits on added sugars, saturated fats and sodium, says Ginger Hultin. She’s a registered dietitian based in Seattle.

On the other hand, having depression can often drive you to eat junky carbs, says Drew Ramsey, MD. He’s a psychiatrist and founder of the Brain Food Clinic in New York City. When you’re not feeling well, it’s natural “to crave a lot of carbs and comfort foods.” That means quickly digested, nutrient-poor picks such as chips, sugary cereals and pastries. “It creates a cycle of constantly seeking the next feel-good hit of sugar,” explains Dr. Ramsey.

Regardless of what came first — a crummy diet or the depression — 2 main issues seem to be at play.

The first is inflammation. Many highly processed foods contain sky-high amounts of sodium, added sugar, fats and other chemicals. They’re recognized as foreign invaders that can spark an immune response (aka inflammation). It’s similar to your body’s reaction to, say, a bacterial infection.

Basically the junk in junk food keeps our immune system on high alert. Over time, this chronic inflammation can impact how your brain functions. “There’s a relationship between how our brain heals and grows and the level of inflammation in our bodies and mental health,” Dr. Ramsey says.

The second possible issue is nutrition. When we don’t eat enough healthy unprocessed foods, we’re often not getting enough of the vitamins and minerals our bodies need. “The brain needs a variety of nutrients to function optimally,” says Hultin.

If you’re on an antidepressant, the foods you eat can impact how well your medication works, too. Here’s how.

So what should I eat for depression?

Generally speaking, the kinds of foods that are best for our brains and bodies are plant foods. They also tend to be whole foods (that is, as minimally processed as possible).

Nutrient-rich foods that may help reduce inflammation include:

  • Fruits (oranges, strawberries, blueberries)
  • Veggies (spinach, kale, tomatoes)
  • Whole grains (whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal)
  • Fish (salmon, tuna, sardines)
  • Legumes (lentils, chickpeas, black beans)
  • Nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, flax seeds)

Low-fat dairy such as yogurt and lean protein sources, including skinless chicken and turkey, can also be good choices. Diets that contain beans, greens and seafood stand out as particularly good choices for mental health, Dr. Ramsey says.

Foods and beverages to avoid or consume in moderation include:

  • Red meat (beef and pork) and processed meats (hot dogs and sausage)
  • Alcohol
  • Highly processed carbohydrates (sweets, pastries, white bread)
  • Soda and sugar-sweetened drinks
  • Fried foods

Break the good-for-you foods into categories and then pick and choose what you enjoy from each. Don’t force yourself to eat something you don’t like, says Hultin. Say you hate kale. Look for something in the same food family, such as arugula, that you like better.

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How to eat for happiness

Here are 5 other tips to help you nourish your body and boost your mood.

1. Keep it simple

Convenience is a huge obstacle to healthy eating, says Hultin. It’s a lot easier to heat up a store-bought frozen dinner than it is to cook a meal on your own. The same can be true for snacks. Unwrapping a granola bar takes a lot less effort than cleaning, peeling or dicing some healthier options.

But once you make healthy eating a habit, it will cease to feel so inconvenient. And you can always use shortcuts to make your life easier.

For snacks, stock your fridge and pantry with healthy, easy-to-eat options such as bananas and nuts. You can also buy pre-washed or pre-sliced fruits and veggies. For quick lunches or dinners, keep canned tuna on hand for sandwiches or to add to salads. And use your weekends wisely: Prepare meals that make loads of leftovers that you can freeze or eat later in the week.

2. Drink more water

It’s not just what you eat that can help you feel better. Drinking enough water is also key. After all, our brains are 75% water. So sipping throughout the day can help improve your mood, and it may even help you make better food choices. A study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics found that people who upped their water intake by just 1% ate less saturated fat, sugar and sodium.

For how much to drink, follow your thirst, recommends the Mayo Clinic. If you’re bored with plain old H20, add some flavor with a wedge of lemon or cucumber slices.

3. Fill up on healthy fats

Fat is no longer a bad word, especially when it comes to monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, says Hultin. These are healthy fats found in foods such as salmon, tuna, olives, vegetable oils, avocados, nuts and seeds. They serve as essential building blocks for our brain that help it function properly.

4. Try fermented foods

The gut-brain connection is strong. (Ever get “butterflies” in your stomach when you feel nervous?) And experts think that gut health may play a role in brain health, too. So if you’re a fan of sauerkraut or kombucha, go for it. These kinds of fermented foods — the list also includes kimchi, yogurt and kefir — contain probiotics, live bacteria that can feed the good bacteria in your gut, says Dr. Ramsey.

5. Have some dark chocolate

While added sugar is a major source of inflammation, a little dark chocolate can boost your mood (and please your taste buds). Dark chocolate is full of magnesium and fiber, nutrients that can make you feel happy and focused, Dr. Ramsey says. Look for chocolate that’s at least 70% cacao, which has less sugar.

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Additional sources
Australian diet and depression study:
BMC Medicine (2017). “A randomized controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial)”
Impact of a Mediterranean-style diet on depression: Nutritional Neuroscience (2019). “A Mediterranean-style dietary intervention supplemented with fish oil improves diet quality and mental health in people with depression: A randomized controlled trial (HELFIMED)”
How drinking water impacts what you eat: Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics (2016). “Plain water consumption in relation to energy intake and diet quality among US adults, 2005–2012”
Guidance on how much water to drink each day: Mayo Clinic