By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Here’s the irony: Making healthy food choices can help boost your mood, but if you’re stressed or sad you’re more likely to eat poorly.
If you have depression, you may feel too sad to eat. But skipping meals can make you more irritable and nervous — not only are you feeling down, but you’re also hungry and your blood sugar can drop, says Felicia Wong, MD, a Los Angeles psychiatrist and a member of the American Psychiatric Association. And indulging in the wrong foods can make depression symptoms worse.
Perhaps you take comfort in the ice cream you have stashed in the freezer, and you eat the whole container in one sitting. The problem with going on a sugar binge is that it can lead to a crash, and your mood can be worse than before you pigged out.
Depending on caffeine for energy isn’t a good idea either. Too much caffeine can disrupt your sleep, and if you don’t sleep well you’re more susceptible to the symptoms of depression.
Alcohol may also seem like a good way to escape from depression symptoms, but it’s not the answer. Alcohol is a poor choice because it’s a depressant. It can impair your judgment and affect your sleep. “It’s hard to feel good when you’re sleep-deprived,” Dr. Wong says.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all diet for depression, making healthy food choices and including certain vitamins and nutrients in your diet can put you in a better mood, says Manuel Villacorta, RD, a certified specialist in sports dietetics, spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, and a nutritionist in San Francisco.
Healthy Food Choices for Depression
What should your plate look like if you’re eating for food and mood? First, eat a balanced diet, Villacorta says. Choose lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Include low-fat dairy products like cheese and yogurt, and add lean sources of protein like meats, poultry, fish, beans, nuts, and eggs. Limit foods that are high in salt or sugar. Processed foods and foods that are fried or high in saturated fat won’t provide the nutrition you need to boost your mood, he says. Plus, fatty and high-sugar foods can be high in calories and cause you to gain weight. When you gain weight, your risk for heart disease and diabetes increases, you tire more easily, and your self-esteem can suffer, which in turn can worsen depression, Wong says.
In recent years, carbohydrates have become the enemy in certain types of diets. “People are cutting out carbs completely,” Villacorta says, who suggests that rather than avoiding all carbs, you should simply choose the right ones — whole-grain breads, fruits, and vegetables. These carbs are digested more slowly than refined carbs, which cause your blood sugar to quickly rise and drop, leading to fatigue. Including healthy carbohydrates in your diet is important because they help increase levels of serotonin — a neurotransmitter that helps relay messages from one area of the brain to another — which makes you feel more relaxed.
Nutrients to Improve Mood
Other healthy food-mood partners include:
Omega-3 fatty acids. These are found in fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel and in ground flaxseed, canola oil, and some nuts such as walnuts. Research is still ongoing, Villacorta says, but some studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids can help alleviate symptoms of depression. You can also take fish oil in capsules. “There are psychiatrists who prescribe fish oil as an adjunctive treatment for depression,” Wong says. “I’ve had a few people report to me that it helped improve their mood.”
Vitamin B12 and folate. Vitamin B12 is found in fish, such as salmon and trout, and in fortified whole-grain breakfast cereals. B12 is also available as a vitamin supplement. Good sources of folate (another B vitamin) are dark leafy vegetables, such as spinach, citrus fruits, beans, almonds, dairy products, and fortified breakfast cereals. Researchers believe that these two B vitamins help break down the amino acid homocysteine, which is being investigated for a possible link to depression when in high levels.
Dark chocolate. Dark chocolate contains antioxidants and increases endorphins, the feel-good hormones. “I recommend dark chocolate to all my clients,” Villacorta says. “If you can eat just one or two small pieces a day, it’s good for you.” But be sure to stop there — a serving of only 1.5 ounces has also been shown to be heart-healthy, but eating the whole bar may cause you to pack on extra pounds.
Protein. Protein provides the amino acid tryptophan, which has been shown to improve mood in some people. Good sources of protein are lean meats, fish, poultry, and low-fat dairy products. Also, beans and certain nuts have protein and can supply tryptophan to help fight the symptoms of depression.
It’s important to pay attention to what you eat because eating right can help boost your mood. “Proper nutrition is essential for good mental health,” Wong says. “I always emphasize diet and exercise for people with depression.” However, there’s no diet for depression that will act as a cure-all, so be sure to work with your doctor or a mental health professional to find the best ways to manage your symptoms
Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago. Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance. He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”