Many people aren’t sure how their dietary habits can affect their mental health. In the past, researchers have been attempting to come up with links between consumption of certain foods and depression. Although depression is caused by a variety of factors including: genetics, environment, sleep, etc. – there is mounting evidence suggesting that the foods you consume may determine whether you feel depressed or feel happy.
Due to the sheer quantity of studies that have been conducted, it is important to look for the ones that have a relatively large sample size. Fortunately I was able to dig up several studies that show clear associations between consumption of certain foods and less depression. Many of these studies also highlight foods that are associated with increased risk of depression. Individuals that want to tweak their diets to maximize mental health may want to consider following some of the general recommendations below.
Best Diet for Depression: Foods That Reduce Risk
Many studies have found that certain foods reduce the likelihood that you’ll develop depression. These foods tend to include: veggies, fruits, fish, and whole grains. Other studies have suggested that non-processed meat is also healthy for reducing depression and anxiety. Those who want to reduce or improve their depressive symptoms should base their diets primarily off of the foods listed below.
- Vegetables: Those who eat plenty of vegetables are getting their brains the micronutrients necessary to stay healthy and function optimally. In addition to improving mental health, veggies are universally referenced as being among the best brain foods.
- Fruits: In addition to veggies, fruits provide us with a significant amount of vitamins to optimize brain health.
- Whole grains: These are considered complex carbohydrates and provide our brain with the fuel it needs to function. Many whole grains help give us mental energy for cognitive processes.
- Fish: It is well-documented that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish help prevent mental illness. Tribes that eat a significant amount of fish tend to have lower incidences of depression and bipolar disorder. Other evidence suggests that eating fish makes antidepressants more effective than they would otherwise be.
- *Meat: It should be noted that not all sources list meat as being beneficial for depression. It is somewhat controversial to suggest that meat is either helpful or harmful for mental health. However, since most humans evolved consuming meat, it aligns with our natural biological health to include meat in our diet. Keep in mind that organic, unprocessed meat is superior to all processed kinds.
2009 Study Links “Whole Food” to Less Depression
In a study conducted in 2009 with over 3,400 participants, researchers attempted to identify whether dietary pattern influenced depressive symptoms among middle-aged adults. From the sample, researchers identified two common diet types that they classified as either “whole food” or “processed food.” The “whole food” included high amounts of vegetables, fruits, and fish.
The “processed food” included sweetened desserts, fried food, processed meat, refined grains, and high-fat dairy. Based on these two types of diets, researchers used self-report depression surveys to assess depression levels. After their initial dietary survey, researchers administered depression surveys nearly 5 years later.
They used the CES-D (Center for Epidemiologic Studies – Depression) scale. The results of this study indicated that those who consumed more “whole foods” had lower rates of depression based on the CES-D ratings. Those who ate diets high in “processed food” had significantly increased likelihood of being depressed.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2801825/
2014 Study Suggests Veggies, Fruits, and Fish Optimal for Mental Health
Prior to 2014, studies looked at specific nutrients that may be responsible for contributing to depression and/or helping prevent depressive symptoms. In nearly every case, older research had a difficult time pinpointing specific nutrients as the potential cause of depression. That said, in recent years, researchers have decided to determine whether a person’s dietary habits may be responsible for causing or preventing depression.
The study by Lai et al. (2014) called “A systematic review and meta-analysis of dietary patterns and depression in community-dwelling adults” revealed that particular diets tend to reduce likelihood of depression. Researchers scoured 6 research databases with all studies that were conducted up until August 2013. All of these studies assessed the link between dietary habits and adult depression.
Only the highest quality studies were included for this meta-analysis. The studies were selected, rated, and data was collected by independent reviewers. They collected a total of 21 studies and pooled data from 13 observational studies. The goal was to determine whether dietary patterns could be responsible for those who develop adult depression.
Researchers found that a “healthy diet” was associated statistically significant reductions in the likelihood of depression. Due to the statistically significant effects, the results of the study suggest that people who eat high amounts of: fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grains tend to have less depression than those who don’t.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24196402
Worst Diet for Depression
There is sufficient evidence suggesting that certain diets help improve our mental health. On the other hand, there is also evidence demonstrating that certain diets can increase likelihood of depression and other psychiatric disorders. Diets that are high in processed foods, simple carbohydrates / sugars, fried foods, fats, and refined grains – tend to result in poorer mental health. If you are trying to improve your mood, it is recommended to avoid the list below.
- Artificial sweeteners: Sweeteners like aspartame are often used in beverages as a replacement for sugar. These are thought to cause alterations in neurotransmission, inevitably leading to changes in mood and possible depression.
- Fried foods: Most fried foods tend to be laden in hydrogenated oils and unhealthy fats. Not only are most fried foods unhealthy for your body, but they have been suggested as culprits for poorer mental health.
- High-fat dairy: In one of the studies, it was found that high-fat dairy consumption tends to result in poorer mental health.
- Processed meat: Not only will eating processed meat increase your risk of health issues like diabetes and heart disease, but they will also be a detriment to your mental health.
- Refined grains: These are grains that are devoid of the wheat germ and bran. An example would be enriched processed white bread. Many nutrients are lost in the manufacturing of these products and they aren’t as healthy as the “whole grains.”
- Simple carbohydrates: Most simple carbohydrates give us a short boost in energy, followed by a mental and physical crash. It is recommended to avoid simple carbs as much as possible to help your mood.
- Sodium: It has been suggested that increased consumption of sodium can detrimentally influence brain functioning. Some believe that eating high amounts of sodium may promote cognitive slowing and fatigue.
- Sugar: It is recommended to avoid foods that are high in sugar. This means cutting out the cookies, candy bars, and soda from your diet. All of these foods provide people with an initial boost in energy, but following that initial boost is generally a “crash” and mental depression.
Do you have to avoid all of these foods? Obviously you know your body better than anyone. If you avoid all of these foods associated with poor mental health, and you notice your depression improving, it may be a good idea to continue avoiding them. However, if you notice that regardless of what you eat, your depression is consistent, your mood may not be affected as much by dietary intake.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22709773
High Protein for Men, Low Protein for Women Equals Less Depression
A study that was published in 2011 concluded that amount of protein consumed can influence depression. Particularly, it was found that there are differences in the effect of protein in a person’s diet based on their sex. Researchers conducted their study with 1947 total men and 2909 total women (ages 25-74).
Their goal was to determine whether high-protein diets had any influence on the occurrence of psychiatric disorders. They used the “SDM-D” depression rating scale to score the severity of depressed mood. The unique aspect of this particular study was that it was conducted over the course of 10-years – with reports of 10-year follow-up results. Researchers found that there were significant differences in depression based on sex and protein intake.
After adjusting for other factors, researchers determined that protein consumption among men tends to be beneficial for mental health. In contrast, the results suggest that high-protein intake among women can be detrimental to their mental health.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21108982
Will dietary changes help all cases of depression?
Eating an ideal diet for mental health will not necessarily help everyone improve their depressive symptoms. Although consistently eating certain foods and avoiding others can reduce the likelihood of depression, it may not work in everyone. It should also be noted that just because someone eats a poor diet for mental health does not necessarily indicate that they will suffer psychiatric problems like depression.
There are people who have a natural genetic predisposition to depression and who will remain unaffected by dietary changes. However, even among individuals for which the root cause of their depression is genetics, dietary changes may still improve symptoms. If you have never tried making dietary adjustments for a consistent period of time, you cannot knock that the changes won’t help. In the article I wrote discussing “natural cures for depression,” I list dietary changes as a potential solution.
An ideal diet for one person may be less beneficial for others
In the midst of all this evidence, it is important to consider that the dietary intake of one individual may not be optimal for another. Although we are all humans, not all of us have the same genetics nor the same ancestral backgrounds. Throughout history and evolution, some tribes grew accustomed to eating certain foods, while others may have adapted to different foods. In some cases it may be best to take a look at your family history – which family members lived the longest and had the best mental health?
Those who had good mental health and lived long lives may have exhibited certain eating habits that differed from members of your family with poorer mental health and shorter life spans. More evidence these days suggests that an optimal diet could be slightly different for everyone. In general, it is best to avoid “fad” diets and stick to the basics. It may take some experimentation to find what is best for your health, but do not assume that an ideal diet for your personal health (both physical and mental) is equally optimal for another person.
Verdict: Diet can increase OR decrease depression – depending on the foods
The takeaway message from this article should be that your diet can influence whether you experience depression. Those who eat diets high in processed foods are at increased risk of depressive symptoms compared to those who eat more “whole foods” such as veggies, fruits, fish, and whole grains. It should also be noted that increased consumption of protein by men may promote better mental health, while less protein for women is beneficial.
Individuals who may be eating poor diets for mental health may want to revise their current eating habits. While making healthy changes to a person’s diet may not result in immediate improvement in mood, over the long-term, not only are these changes beneficial for ensuring physical longevity, but increasing your chances of favorable mental health.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20048020
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23802679
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23078460