Fight Depression with Your Fork

natalie_board/ iStock / Getty Images Plus
natalie_board/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

Most of us have learned the hard way that what we eat and how we feel are closely intertwined. Just think back to how your overeating around the holidays left you feeling sluggish and fatigued. Now, there’s more scientific proof about the link between mood and food.

A large study from the American Journal of Psychiatry showed that women who ate a healthy diet filled with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and high quality meat and fish were 30 percent less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Women who ate a typical Western diet — filled with processed foods and sugar — were 50 percent more likely to be depressed. Although the study attempted to control for some factors, it is hard to completely separate out the causes and effects — because of course depression plays a role in influencing the foods people eat! Just think back to your first breakup and how many pints of ice cream you ate afterward.

These findings are particularly interesting considering that a recent review study published in the Journal of American Medical Association showed that the effects of antidepressants “may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms.” Antidepressants are often quite helpful for people with severe or very severe depression, and most previous studies focused on those with the most severe symptoms. And while many people with mild depression do report feeling better on antidepressants, it’s just not that those numbers are about the same as mildly depressed people who report feeling better while take a placebo, which is a sugar pill.

How Can Unhealthy Food Choices Lead to Depression?

I think the most likely link between mood and food is inflammation. Eating processed foods tends to lead to more inflammatory markers in the body, and inflammation is linked to depression as well. Experimental studies have shown that foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like fatty fish (think salmon, trout, oysters, halibut, etc.), flaxseed, walnuts and others help with brain neuron function and even improve brain plasticity. The effect of omega-3s is pronounced enough that American Psychiatric Association “supports the AHA’s guidelines regarding fish consumption, and further recommends that patients with mood, impulse control, or psychotic disorders consume ≥1 gram/day of combined EPA and DHA.”

Fruits and vegetables and other foods high in antioxidants also play a valuable protective function, especially as we age.

And, of course, many people have food sensitivities and celiac disease. When people continue to eat those problem foods, common symptoms include depression, fatigue and that all-around bad feeling. Sugar, caffeine and alcohol absolutely can negatively affect mood as well. Eating a healthier diet and fewer processed foods naturally cuts down on these common trigger foods.

Putting it All Together

This doesn’t, of course, mean that it’s a good plan just to pitch your antidepressant, reach for some blueberries and salmon, and call it a day. But for mild depression, cutting the processed food; adding more omega-3s, an abundance of fruits and veggies, regular exercise; and spending time with people you love is a great idea. Not only can these help with depression, but they’re plain good for you!

Daily self-care activities like journaling, meditation and regularly engaging in most anything that brings you joy are wonderful places to start when it comes to common sense preventative medicine. Therapy can be a wonderful support as well. And, of course, medications can be lifesaving if needed.

Switching to healthier foods is not always a cure for depression, but is a tremendously tasty way to promote good mental health and lower the risks of almost all other chronic diseases, too. As we discuss affordable health care, it helps to remember that food can be potent medicine.

Want to Learn More?

Here’s a podcast with my fellow RD, Frances Arnold! And here’s a course on Food, Mood and Behavior through Dietitian Central.

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Cheryl Harris
Cheryl Harris, MPH, RD, is a nutritionist and mindfulness coach in Fairfax, VA. She runs a private practice focused on digestive & autoimmune health, Harris Whole Health. She blogs at Connect with her on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.