Conflicting diet advice is seemingly everywhere today, making it difficult to know which diet to follow for our overall health, let alone our mental health. But we know that diet has a major impact on depression, making it an accessible and powerful tool to help manage how we feel.
By taking a deeper look at what the current research says (and doesn’t say), you can identify and follow a set of simple dietary guidelines to help improve how you feel, both physically and mentally.
How does diet affect our mood?
It may be surprising to some that what we put into our stomachs actually has a huge impact on how we feel mentally and emotionally. But recent studies have shown that healthy diets are associated with lower rates of depression while unhealthy diets are associated with higher rates of depression. Our food choices matter.
There are four predominant physiological theories that speak to how diet may influence depression:
The brain’s ability to change over time is important for core mental functions like learning and healing. Healthier diets have been shown to support brain plasticity while unhealthy diets reduce it.
- Gut microbiome
Scientists have documented a bidirectional communication pattern between our microbiome, the healthy bacteria that naturally live in our digestive tract, and our brains. An unbalanced microbiome may be both a contributor to and effect of depression.
Inflammation has long been shown to be associated with depression. While inflammation can be driven by a number of factors, including stress and diet, sticking to an anti-inflammatory diet can help reduce inflammation overall.
- Oxidative stress
An imbalance between free radicals (chemical byproducts of cellular metabolism) and antioxidants (which neutralize free radicals) is called oxidative stress, and it can damage cells in the body. Insufficient antioxidants in the diet can lead to oxidative stress, which is associated with depression.
“Given the complexity of depression, it’s likely that each of these factors may play a role,” says Dalia Ibrahim, MD, a gastroenterologist and Brightside doctor. “The good news is that certain dietary decisions are aligned with healthy choices for each of these pathways.”
Which diet should you follow to help with depression?
Across numerous studies and analyses, all signs point to the Mediterranean diet as the best diet for reducing symptoms of depression. People who follow a Mediterranean diet, named after the typical dietary intake in countries around the Mediterranean Sea, show a 30% lower risk of depression compared to those who eat a typical Western diet.
Here are 7 guidelines to make sure you’re eating right for depression:
- Eat lots of fresh veggies and fruits
Fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants, all of which keep your body running smoothly
- Opt for whole grains, and stay away from white grains
Whole grains retain more nutrients and are digested more slowly than their white counterparts, reducing carbohydrate spikes that can be hard on your body
- Choose lean proteins
Lean meats such as wild caught fish and organic chicken provide lots of healthy protein to keep you full, with less saturated fat and cholesterol
- Reduce sugar
Sugar is hard on your body. Limit your intake, especially by eliminating sugary beverages like soda, juice, and sports drinks
- Drink plenty of water
Staying hydrated is important for every function in your body. Plus, drinking more water should mean drinking less soda, juice, etc.
- Stock up on the good fats
Avocados, salmon, and nuts all contain healthy fats that provide sustainable energy and vital nutrients
- Spice it up
Many spices add flavor as well as health benefits: cinnamon, garlic, turmeric, rosemary and sage are some of our favorites
“There is a strong association between the brain and the gut. Be intentional with your diet and choose foods that nourish you,” says Dr. Ibrahim. Following the Mediterranean diet can have a meaningful impact on your feelings of depression. And, it’s a diet you can feel good about when it comes to your physical health as well – it’s been shown to reduce the risk for heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and more.
On top of it’s mental and physical benefits, we love this diet because it doesn’t require drastic changes to your lifestyle. By starting with small and consistent everyday choices that turn into habits, you set yourself up for a sustainable way of living and eating. You can find more helpful resources on the Mediterranean diet below.
Remember that a better diet can certainly help, but for most people it’s only one part of an effective treatment plan. You should consider other self care approaches like improving sleep and exercise and reducing stress, as well as consider appropriate clinical approaches like therapy or medication.