How Much Does Diet Impact Depression?

Green food does the body good

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Most of us understand the connection between nutrition and physical health or illness. But what about the link between diet and depression

Your diet may not directly cause an improvement in mood or a decrease in depressive symptoms. But there may be an association between nutrition and mood, which is promising news for the nearly 264 million people worldwide that live with depression. 

Connection Between Diet and Depression

"Research shows an association between dietary patterns that are rich in fruits and vegetables and lower in processed foods with improved mood and well-being ratings, as well as a lower risk for depression,” says Gary D. Foster, Ph.D., WW Chief Scientific Officer. 

One recent study published in the journal Nutrients found that people who consumed greater amounts of fruits and vegetables reported greater levels of optimism and self-efficacy.

And a systematic review published in the European Journal of Nutrition looked at 16 studies and suggested that people who ate Western/unhealthy diets such as more fast food, sweets, and sugary soft drinks had an increased risk of developing depression, while those who followed a healthier pattern of eating, including a Mediterranean style diet, seemed to have a protective effect on the development of depression over time. 

However, while fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with greater well-being, Foster says there’s no real scientific evidence that suggests that fruit and vegetable consumption causes improved mood. “Instead, it is an observed association between patterns of eating and mental health,” he says.

“We just don’t know enough at the moment to draw firm conclusions about the link between dietary intake and depression,” Foster says. Additionally, he says more research is needed to see whether diets that are high in fat and sugar are linked to changes in mood and depression risk. 

Food and Nutrition as Tools to Help Mood

Results from a randomized controlled trial published in the journal PLOS ONE found that the symptoms of depression in young adults decreased after adhering to a brief diet intervention that included fruit, vegetables, fish, and lean meat. 

“Food and nutrition are powerful tools easily within our reach to help our mood,” says Umadevi Naidoo, MD, a Harvard Nutritional Psychiatrist.

Unless you have a food allergy or intolerance, she says embracing healthy whole foods are good for your brain and body. 

“If you’re consistently following the nutritional strategies to improve mood, while also paying attention to the list of foods to avoid which worsen symptoms, you should continue to feel emotionally well,” Naidoo says. 

However, she does point out that consistency, along with a holistic mind-body approach, is key. “Mindfulness, mindful eating, exercise, sleep hygiene, and adequate hydration are also critical to your success,” Naidoo says.

Can Other Foods Have the Opposite Effect?

Yes, other, less healthy foods can have the opposite effect, says Naidoo. “It’s equally important for us to know the foods to avoid when it comes to helping our mood as we may often overlook this,” she says. 

Some of the top foods to cut back on and possibly eliminate over time, according to Naidoo, include junk food such as foods high in added sugar, processed foods, fast foods, and trans fats. The goal is to replace these options with healthy whole foods.

“Many of these foods disrupt the gut microbiome, leading to dysbiosis and gut inflammation — gut inflammation can then lead to brain inflammation, causing your mood to worsen,” Naidoo explains. She says research shows we can affect our gut bacteria by what we eat within a 24-hour time frame, so we have the daily choice of eating fast foods or healthy whole foods. 

“While you won’t feel the effect immediately, these changes start to occur and impact your mood over time by either worsening your mood if you are eating a poor diet or improve your mood if you are making healthy choices,” Naidoo says. 

Diet and Lifestyle Changes You Can Make to Decrease Symptoms of Depression

Depression is a serious medical condition, and food alone is not a proven treatment, says Foster. Make sure to consult with health care professionals to ensure that you are finding the best help for you. 

That said, he does point to the science suggesting that a healthier pattern of eating can have a positive effect on depression and staying hydrated plays a role in mood and cognitive function.

In addition, Foster says including two servings of fatty fish each week is recommended by the American Psychiatric Association because lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with depression. 

“Sustainable change comes from making small behavioral changes to improve your diet that is actionable, manageable, and realistic – they should fit your life, not the other way around,” Foster says. Here are actionable steps he recommends to start making behavioral changes:

  • Set goals that are specific and reasonable.
  • Expect setbacks — remember, it’s about progress, not perfection.
  • Practice self-compassion.

Additionally, Naidoo suggests the following tips:

  • Keep well hydrated.
  • Pay attention to movement and exercise, as exercise helps release endorphins, which uplift your mood.
  • Sleep well, and practice good sleep hygiene.
  • Practice mindfulness, breathing exercises, and meditation.
  • Maintain a daily gratitude journal – even something small like taking in that smile from your coffee barista is important to our wellbeing.

For the nutrition changes, Naidoo says to add one of these food sources per week and start building from there. 

  • Eat more fiber, which you can easily obtain from vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts, seeds, lentils, and healthy whole grains.
  • Eat prebiotic and fermented foods.
  • Include sources of omega-3s like fatty fish or plant-based sources like chia, flax, or hemp seeds. 
  • Add spices like turmeric to your food to help boost mood.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re dealing with the symptoms of depression, you may want to take a look at your diet. Aim to include fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and fish high in omega-3s and limit or eliminate foods high in saturated fat, trans fat, added sugar, and other harmful chemicals. Although dietary changes may help boost your mood and lessen the severity of symptoms, it is not a substitution for other forms of treatment. Talk to your doctor or a mental health expert about how you can include nutrition as part of your overall treatment plan. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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