The food people eat become the blocks through which the entire body is built. Although food consumption is all too often viewed primarily through the lens of weight and heart disease, food contributes significantly to all areas of bodily health, from circulatory health to mental health, to emotional health.
Food is the matter that human bodies are created with. Failing to provide healthy and nutrient-dense foods result in disease – even if that disease manifests as a mental health issue, rather than obesity, diabetes, or heart disease. Far from being just an issue of weight, diet is a matter of overall health, wellness, and resilience, and can have dramatic and overwhelming impacts on mental health concerns.
When you are struggling with depression, it can feel a bit overwhelming to think about eating the right foods. However, some of these small changes in your diet may help to decrease your symptoms and have a positive effect on your daily life.
Foods that Help with Depression
There’s truly not one specific best diet plan for depression that’s perfect for everyone. The best thing patients with depression can do is to follow a healthy diet that suits each individual in their own way.
Whatever your dietary preferences, there are a variety of options that can provide mood-boosting benefits. This isn’t to say that you need to overhaul your eating habits and only consume these foods, but being conscious of which foods impact your mood can help you better manage symptoms of depression.
Cold-water ocean fish like sardines, salmon, trout, mackerel and trout are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids boost brain health by strengthening the connections between brain cells. Omega-3 fats also decrease inflammation in the tiny blood vessels that supply nerve cells with vital nutrients.
Ocean fish are also rich sources of vitamin B12, which is necessary for healthy nerve tissue.
Although other nuts such as cashews, brazil nuts, and hazelnuts are helpful in supplementing omega-3 fats, walnuts seem to be the winner in this category. Walnuts are known to support overall brain health, being one of the highest plant-based sources of omega-3 and a great source of protein to help keep blood sugar levels at a healthy balance.
One study found that depression scores were 26% lower among those who consumed about 1/4 cup of walnuts per day. They found that adults who ate nuts, and specifically walnuts, were more likely to have higher levels of optimism, energy, hope, concentration, and a greater interest in activities.
Pumpkin and squash seeds increase tryptophan, an amino acid that’s essential for the production of serotonin. Serotonin is a critical brain chemical that’s responsible for mood and the regulation of our mood.
Flaxseed and chia seeds are wonderful additions to your diet if you struggle with depression. As with some of the other foods mentioned, these two types of seeds are particularly great sources of omega-3 fats.
Beans are a great source of protein and fiber, both of which help to maintain stable and consistent blood sugar levels. In addition to helping minimize the blood sugar spikes and dips that can affect our mood, beans are also great sources of folate. Folate is a B vitamin that helps the body produce blood cells, DNA and RNA, and metabolize proteins.
Garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas) are very high in folate, offering over 100% of the daily recommended value in just a 1/2 cup. Pinto beans are another great choice, with a half-cup serving offering 37% of the daily recommended value of folate.
Chicken and turkey are both great sources of lean protein that can help to stabilize blood sugar levels, keeping your mood well-balanced during the day. In addition to being trusted sources of lean protein, turkey and chicken breasts are known to provide high amounts of tryptophan. Again, this is beneficial because it helps create serotonin, which assists us in maintaining healthy sleep and a balanced mood.
Many of us already eat chicken breast regularly but incorporating more lean protein such as turkey and chicken during your week can help you increase your intake of tryptophan.
Protein and Meat
Red meat does not cure depression, but the plentiful B vitamins in lean meat are essential for the health of the nervous system. Servings of lean meat provide a rich source of B12, a vital nutrient for good brain health.
Meat also provides plenty of protein. Proteins provide the body with essential amino acids that are then used by the nervous system to build neurotransmitters. Healthy levels of neurotransmitters are absolutely vital for a good mood. Proteins also balance blood sugar levels.
Yes, you need to eat your veggies! Although this is important for everyone, eating vegetables can be of great help if you struggle with depression. One reason is that people with depression have been found to have a lower dietary intake of folate compared to those without depression.
Folate, fiber, and other nutrients make vegetables – especially the darker leafy greens – a wonderful choice when looking for foods to help improve and stabilize mood. Leafy green vegetables are also good sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is one of the three main types of omega-3 fatty acids, the other two being DHA and EPA.
When considering vegetables to help increase your omega-3s, the powerful players tend to be Brussels sprouts, spinach, kale, and watercress.
Generally speaking, it’s best to allow your body the freedom to digest foods as close to their natural state as possible.
Many of the processed foods or things you might find at a convenience store are filled with preservatives and offer little to no nutritional benefit. Your body is trying to make sense of what to do with such food, and it can significantly interrupt or rob your body (and mind) of key nutrients and energy it needs to function at its best.
Heavily processed foods aren’t good for mental health or health in general. They have few nutrients but are high in fat and calories. They’re loaded with simple carbohydrates, which break down into sugars that play havoc with blood sugar and insulin levels. Spikes and troughs in blood sugar contribute to high fatigue and poor mood. Whole foods are full of nutrients and digest more slowly than processed foods.
Foods That Worsen Depression
If you’re coping with depression, it can be just as important to know what not to eat. Unfortunately, many of these foods are the ones people often turn to when they’re having a rough day. Of course, most things in moderation won’t harm you, but being aware of the negative impacts certain foods can have on your mental health can help you make better food choices.
Simple Carbohydrates and Sugar. Sugar is added to so many foods it doesn’t bear repeating. Processed and refined sugars have a serious, negative impact on mood.
Starches and Processed Grains. Refined grains and starches don’t occur in nature. They cause wild swings in blood sugar levels which prompts a low mood, mood swings throughout the day, and fatigue.
Fried foods. Fried foods are loaded in grease and salt. They’re often breaded, which loads you up on processed grains and fat.
Alcohol. Limiting one’s intake of alcohol is always a good idea, but it’s necessary if you have problems with depression or anxiety. Alcohol acts as a depressant in the central nervous system and slows down many important brain functions, including the brain’s ability to purge toxins from its tissues. Alcohol is loaded with sugar, which as we noted above, causes excessive peaks and troughs in blood sugar levels. Large fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin are tied to a depressed, anxious mood.
Everyday Tips to Manage Depression
- Start the day with breakfast, such as wholegrain cereal with milk and fruit, multigrain toast with a poached egg, or fruit with yoghurt. Have no more than 150ml of fresh fruit juice or smoothie to drink.
- Include some starchy food (such as boiled potatoes, rice, pasta, and granary or multigrain breads) at lunch and dinner. If you are short of time, then go for a sandwich or jacket potato (filled with fish or low fat cheese and salad) or even a bowl of cereal and some fruit.
- Between meals include snacks such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, yoghurts, and oatcakes or crackers with low fat cheese, meat or fish.
What to drink?
Even slight dehydration may affect your mood. Since we know that a healthy brain contains up to 78 per cent water, it makes sense to drink plenty. Aim for around six to eight glasses (about 1.5 – 2 litres) fluid per day to stay well hydrated.
Caffeine can affect your mood. It can also lead to withdrawal headaches and to low or irritable mood when the effects wear off. Caffeinated drinks, such as coffee, cola, energy drinks, tea and chocolate, should be limited. Other non-caffeinated drinks, such as fruit squash, lemonade or herbal teas are good alternatives.
There are good foods for depression all around. It just takes a little research to identify the best diet for depression that works for you. A healthy diet filled with nutrient-dense foods will help you manage depression and its ugly fellow-travelers, like anxiety and mood swings.
We tend to crave foods high in starches and simple carbohydrates when we’re stressed out. Even the best of intentions can go bad when we try to eat healthily but feel worse. Consider that sometimes a crash diet robs us of the nutrients we need to stay healthy. All of the following foods worsen depression when eaten in excess.