One of the most overlooked aspects of mental health is nutrition. Food plays a significant role in our physical health, as well as our mental and emotional health. When you are struggling with depression, it can feel a bit overwhelming to think about eating the right foods. However, some of these small changes in your diet may help to decrease your symptoms and have a positive effect on your daily life.
What Foods Can Help With Depression?
Whatever your dietary preferences, there are a variety of options that can provide mood-boosting benefits. This isn’t to say that you need to overhaul your eating habits and only consume these foods, but being conscious of which foods impact your mood can help you better manage symptoms of depression.
Wild-caught fish, especially the more oily types such as salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines, and tuna (not canned), are great choices to help fight depression. Why? Because they are rich sources of omega-3 fats.
Omega-3 fats are important in brain health and may be involved in the functioning of serotonin, a neurotransmitter important in the regulation of mood.
What’s more, researchers analyzed 26 previously published studies (involving more than 150,000 participants) that examined the link between fish consumption and the risk of depression. The study, which was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found that people who consumed the most fish were less likely to experience symptoms of depression. The findings proved that even more clinical trials are needed to explore the role of omega-3 fatty acids in depression and mental health.
Although other nuts such as cashews, brazil nuts, and hazelnuts are helpful in supplementing omega-3 fats, walnuts seem to be the winner in this category. Walnuts are known to support overall brain health, being one of the highest plant-based sources of omega-3 and a great source of protein to help keep blood sugar levels at a healthy balance.
One study found that depression scores were 26% lower among those who consumed about one-quarter cup of walnuts per day. Researchers examined data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which draws from a large sampling of more than 26,000 American adults. They found that adults who ate nuts, and specifically walnuts, were more likely to have higher levels of optimism, energy, hope, concentration, and a greater interest in activities.
Beans are a great source of protein and fiber, both of which help to maintain stable and consistent blood sugar levels. In addition to helping minimize the blood sugar spikes and dips that can affect our mood, beans are also great sources of folate. Folate is a B vitamin that helps the body produce blood cells, DNA and RNA, and metabolize proteins. Garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas) are very high in folate, offering over 100% of the daily recommended value in just a half-cup. Pinto beans are another great choice, with a half-cup serving offering 37% of the daily recommended value of folate.
Flaxseed and chia seeds are wonderful additions to your diet if you struggle with depression. As with some of the other foods mentioned, these two types of seeds are particularly great sources of omega-3 fats. Just one tablespoon of chia seeds provides approximately 61% of your daily recommended amount of omega-3 and one tablespoon of flaxseed provides roughly 39% of the daily recommendation. As you can see, these two seeds pack a powerful punch if you are looking for small ways to improve your diet and your mood.
Pumpkin and squash seeds are a great addition to increase tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that helps create serotonin. Although turkey is what most people tend to think of in relation to tryptophan, there are many other food sources that offer greater amounts of this essential amino acid. Pumpkin and squash seeds near the top of the list, with just one ounce providing approximately 58% of the recommended daily intake of tryptophan.
Chicken and turkey are both great sources of lean protein that can help to stabilize blood sugar levels, keeping your mood well-balanced during the day. In addition to being trusted sources of lean protein, turkey and chicken breasts are known to provide high amounts of tryptophan.
Again, this is beneficial because it helps create serotonin, which assists us in maintaining healthy sleep and a balanced mood. Just 3 ounces of roasted chicken breast offers 123% of the recommended daily intake of tryptophan. Many of us already eat chicken breast regularly but incorporating more lean protein such as turkey and chicken during your week can help you increase your intake of tryptophan.
Yes, you need to eat your veggies! Although this is important for everyone, eating vegetables can be of great help if you struggle with depression. One reason is that people with depression have been found to have a lower dietary intake of folate compared to those without depression.
Folate, fiber, and other nutrients make vegetables—especially the darker leafy greens—a wonderful choice when looking for foods to help improve and stabilize mood.
Leafy green vegetables are also good sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is one of the three main types of omega-3 fatty acids, the other two being DHA and EPA.
When considering vegetables to help increase your omega-3s, the powerful players tend to be Brussels sprouts, spinach, kale, and watercress.
More and more research is linking good gut health with good mental health. Several studies have found that microorganisms living in your gut, including probiotics, can play a key role in mood by helping to reduce inflammation in your body, produce feel-good neurotransmitters, and affect your stress response. This might be a factor in why higher-than-average number of people with irritable bowel syndrome also develop depression as well as anxiety.
Foods that contain probiotics include:
Generally speaking, it’s best to allow your body the freedom to digest foods as close to their natural state as possible.
Many of the processed foods or things you might find at a convenience store are filled with preservatives and offer little to no nutritional benefit. Your body is trying to make sense of what to do with such food, and it can significantly interrupt or rob your body (and mind) of key nutrients and energy it needs to function at its best.
What Foods Aren’t Helpful for Depression?
If you’re coping with depression, it can be just as important to know what not to eat. Unfortunately, many of these foods are the ones people often turn to when they’re having a rough day. Of course, most things in moderation won’t harm you, but being aware of the negative impacts certain foods can have on your mental health can help you make better food choices.
We know that sugary foods and drinks are not good for our bodies. What you may not realize is that just as sugar can impact your waistline, it can also significantly impact your mood. There are food choices all around us that are filled with sugar such as cakes, cookies, cereal, drinks, and even condiments such as barbecue sauce, salad dressings, and more.
You may be surprised how many foods are perceived as “healthy,” yet contain extraordinary amounts of added sugar. Examples of tricky foods like this are granola bars, energy bars, trail mix, and honey roasted nuts.
Keep in mind that sugar will not always be labeled simply as “sugar” on the ingredient list. In order to be on the lookout for added sugar, you may want to also look for the following terms:
- Corn syrup
- High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
Be mindful of your choices, and limit foods that are high in sugar, particularly those with added sugars. Keeping your blood sugar levels more evenly balanced throughout the day can help your mood stay more evenly balanced too.
Just as with sugar, we are surrounded by processed foods that use refined grains. The term “refined” refers to forms of sugars and starches that don’t exist in nature, as described by psychiatrist and nutritional expert Dr. Georgia Ede, MD. She goes on to share that, “If you are looking at a sweet or starchy whole food that you would come across exactly as in nature, you are looking at an unrefined carbohydrate.”
Many of the foods we seek for convenience are the very things that may be hijacking your mood. Foods such as white rice, pasta, crackers, bread, chips, and breaded foods are full of refined carbohydrates that offer little to no nutritional value and rob you of important B vitamins in the process of digestion.
Loading your diet with these refined carbohydrate foods will take your blood sugar levels on a roller coaster ride throughout the day, which can also result in symptoms of low mood and fatigue.
Limiting alcohol is in your best interest if you struggle with depression. Alcohol is a depressant and can lead to impaired judgment and reaction time. Many alcoholic beverages can actually be quite sugary which, as noted above, can have a way of sabotaging your mood and causing blood sugar levels to elevate and crash.
Although some research has shown that small amounts of alcohol such as red wine can be helpful, it is generally in your best interest to steer clear if you struggle with depression. As suggested by Dr. Ede, “Alcohol will not solve any of your health problems, because no health problem is caused by a lack of alcohol.”
Yes, caffeine can help you start your day with a boost. However, it can also lead to crashes later in the day, and leave you feeling as though you need more to regain energy. Many Americans find themselves over-caffeinated, as we drink coffee and energy drinks regularly.
A moderate amount of caffeine, two to three cups per day, however, has been linked to a lower risk of suicide.
A better alternative to coffee and energy drinks is green tea. In addition to antioxidant benefits, green tea is also known to provide theanine, an amino acid that offers an anti-stress benefit that can be helpful for people with depression.
A Word From Verywell
Our bodies interact with the foods we eat, and the choices we make each day can impact our body’s ability to function at its best. Although there is no specific diet that has been proven to alleviate depression, we can see that there are plenty of nutrient-rich foods that can help to keep our brains healthy.
It is a good idea to talk with your medical provider before making significant changes to your diet. Remember to also be patient with yourself as you begin to try new foods and give your body time to adjust to the changes you are making. Making better food choices can help your overall health as well as make a positive impact on your emotional wellness.
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.