It’s no secret that our bodies do better with a healthy diet. And the same is true for our brains.
Our brains are constantly gobbling up energy. So the type of fuel we choose matters. Eating nutritious foods full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants can help the brain stay healthy and perform at its best. But certain diets promote inflammation, which can gunk up the works. And when our brain can’t send signals efficiently, it can hinder functions such as memory and mood.
“There’s a mountain of data that shows eating more whole foods and less processed foods can help reduce your risk of depression,” says Drew Ramsey, MD. He’s a psychiatrist and founder of the Brain Food Clinic in New York City. He’s also the author of Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety.
One example comes from a 2017 study published in BMC Medicine. The researchers split people with depression into 2 groups. The first received diet guidance. They met with dietitians and received healthy recipes to try at home. The other group received no dietary support.
The majority of the participants in both groups attended therapy and took medication for their depression. So the only major difference was their dietary habits. The results: After 3 months, 32.3% of the dietary support group saw their depression go into remission. Only 8% of the other group could say the same.
So what foods can help your brain function at its best? Let’s dive into the science.
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Which foods can help with depression?
There aren’t specific foods or diets that will take depression away overnight. But certain eating habits have been shown to help ease symptoms over time.
At the top of the list is the Mediterranean diet, Dr. Ramsey says.
Don’t let the word “diet” fool you, though. It’s less of a restrictive set of rules and more of a healthy-eating blueprint. The focus is on filling your plate with a variety of whole foods. Those include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats such as fish and chicken, and nuts and other foods with healthy fats.
What isn’t emphasized on the Mediterranean diet? Processed foods, red meats and refined grains (think: white bread).
“It’s about eating more whole foods and less processed foods,” says Dr. Ramsey. “It means reaching more often for hummus and carrots instead of a bag of chips.”
Some specific science-backed brain boosters to include in your diet are:
There’s good news if you think oysters are a delicacy. They’re very high in zinc, a mineral that plays a key role in people’s stress response. Eating foods rich in zinc has been shown to help people with depression recover better, says Dr. Ramsey.
Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and trout are a great source of brain-friendly omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids play a key role in brain structure, among other important things.
In fact, in a review in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the people who ate the most fish had lower rates of depression than those who ate the least. Aim for a 3.5-ounce serving twice a week, suggests the American Heart Association.
Nuts are another good source of omega-3s. And walnuts are the champs in this category. One study published in Nutrients found that depression scores were 26% lower in people who ate a quarter cup of walnuts every day.
Dark, leafy greens
There’s a good reason to eat your veggies. Leafy greens have been shown to fight inflammation. And that’s important because inflammation can make it harder for brain cells to do their jobs. Explore varieties such as watercress, spinach, Swiss chard, lettuce, kale and collards.
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What foods make depression worse?
No foods are off limits, but you want to try to limit foods that make inflammation worse. Inflammation can make it harder for your brain to function.
Those foods include processed carbohydrates (think chips, white bread, store-bought confections), fried foods, soda and red meat, says the Harvard Medical School.
If you’re taking a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), there are some specific concerns, too. MAOIs include medications such as tranylcypromine (Parnate®) and phenelzine (Nardil®). This type of antidepressant works by changing how much of the amino acid tyramine is in your body. Tyramine helps regulate blood pressure. So eating foods with high amounts of tyramine while taking an MAOI can lead to dangerous blood pressure spikes, says the Mayo Clinic.
Tyramine is found in small amounts in protein-rich foods. But its level increases as the food ages. That’s why aged cheeses and fermented drinks such as alcoholic beverages are especially high in tyramine. Talk with your doctor about what foods you should avoid if you take an MAOI.
No matter what medication for depression you’re taking, there are foods and drinks you may want to enjoy only in moderation.
While alcohol can be seen as a way to loosen up, it can also make symptoms of anxiety and depression worse. And it can make side effects of antidepressants, such as drowsiness, more severe, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
If you’re going to drink, talk with your doctor about how to stay safe. NAMI suggests sticking to a limit of 1 drink a day for women and 2 for men. And start slowly to gauge how alcohol interacts with your medications.
You don’t have to cut caffeine out of your diet. But it’s smart not to go overboard, especially if you have anxiety, says Joy Alonzo, PharmD. She’s a clinical assistant professor in the department of pharmacy practice at the Texas A&M Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy in College Station.
Alonzo’s recommendation? Stick to 1 cup a day if you experience symptoms such as nervousness, irritability or difficulty sleeping.
Let’s be clear: We’re not talking about sugar found in nutritious foods such as whole fruits. Added sugar is the kind that doesn’t occur naturally in foods. Think sweet treats and sweetened beverages such as soda.
“The trouble with sugar, especially without much fiber, is that it releases a burst of energy,” Alonzo says. “But there’s a crash afterward. Eating too much can cause mood swings, and it’s not good for your overall health.”
In fact, in a study published in Scientific Reports, men who ate the most added sugar were 23% more likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety compared with those who ate the least.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends sticking to 10% or less of calories from added sugar each day. That’s 200 calories for someone who eats 2,000 calories a day. And that can add up quickly. Especially since it can hide in surprising places, such as pasta sauces, crackers and pizzas. Check out these other examples:
- 1 sports drink (20 ounces) has an average of 122 calories of added sugar
- 6 ounces of flavored yogurt has about 72 calories of added sugar
- 1 can of regular soda has around 126 calories of added sugar
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Impact of diet on depression remission: BMC Medicine (2017). “A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial)”
Regularly eating fish may protect against depression: Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (2015). “Fish consumption and risk of depression: a meta-analysis”
Regularly eating walnuts, effects on depression: Nutrients (2019). “Lower Depression Scores Among Walnut Consumers in NHANES”
Foods that fight inflammation: Harvard Health Publishing
MAOIs and tyramine: Mayo Clinic
Mixing alcohol and antidepressants: National Alliance on Mental Illness
Added sugars and depression: Scientific Reports (2017). “Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study”