A lot of data links diets that are high in processed foods with depression. But is this simply because people who are depressed sometimes gravitate toward unhealthy comfort foods?
When we examine the link between diet and depression, it can be a bit tricky to know if people were eating potato chips and Oreos because they were depressed, or if they were depressed because they were eating potato chips and Oreos.
Despite this, there is still enough evidence that allows us to make some dietary recommendations for those who suffer from depression.
There are other factors that are equally important when dealing with depression: exercise, stress management, social networks, good quality sleep, and medication if required.
To imply that anyone suffering from depression “just isn’t eating right” is both unfair and unsupported by scientific evidence, and that’s not what I am saying here.
What I am saying is that small improvements to diet can certainly impact mood, hormone, and brain function in positive, healthy ways.
There has been a lot of information in the past 10 years linking inflammation and risk for depression (see reference #1 at bottom). Those with a plant-based diet and others who include a significant amount of fruit, vegetables, and grains may have a bit of an edge since this way of eating is associated with foods that are anti-inflammatory.
It makes sense that eating plenty of vegetables and fruits, which are high antioxidant foods, could reduce inflammation and potentially the symptoms of depression (references 2, 3, 4, 5).
Many of us have low levels of vitamin D, which is linked to depression, no matter what diet we are eating (reference #6). For those of who don’t leave near the equator and may be spending part of the year in the dull and dreary greyness (says she who lives on Vancouver Island), supplementation is easy and inexpensive.
Omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA have received a lot of attention in the past decade. Adding these fats to the diet is beneficial for most people, not just those who suffer from depression.
These fats can be found in fish of course (particularly salmon and sardines), but also in chia, walnuts, flax, and microalgae. I know, algae, right? But if you think about it, algae is where the salmon and sardines get their omega 3’s, so you are kind of eating the middle man. Still not convinced? Let’s talk.
Olive oil is another source of beneficial fat with its lovely anti-inflammatory polyphenols, and it’s being studied as treatment for mood disorders. The EPIC-Greece study showed that people who ate more olive oil were less likely to be depressed (reference #7). (I am sure it has nothing to do with the fact that they lived in Greece, probably near a fabulous beach.)
The amino acid tryptophan, which is found in protein rich foods, is needed to make the hormone serotonin. Low serotonin levels are also linked to depression.
It’s unclear that supplementing with tryptophan alleviates symptoms, so food sources are generally best. The good news is that tryptophan is not just about the turkey: it’s easily added through chocolate (yes please), eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, and tofu as well.
Nothing fancy here: a diet that reduces the risk of depression is really just about eating healthy. Adopting a healthy diet is not a cure-all of course, but there is certainly no downside to it.
If you need help developing a healthy diet that will work for you, I would love to chat.
“Linking diet & depression” was written by Nutritionist & Orthomolecular Practitioner Tricia Pearson. Thanks for reading!
Tricia Pearson is a Certified Nutritionist specializing in cancer and diabetes. Check out Tricia's services and find out how to harvest the best of your health.
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