Recent evidence suggests that good nutrition is essential for our mental health and that a number of mental health conditions may be influenced by dietary factors.
Here are 10 tips for eating if you or a loved one is recovering from clinical depression.
1. Eat a Diet High in Nutrients
Nutrients in foods support the body’s repair, growth, and wellness. Nutrients we all need include vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein, and even a small amount of fat. A deficiency in any of these nutrients lead to our bodies not working at full capacity — and can even cause illness.
2. Fill Your Plate With Essential Antioxidants
Damaging molecules called free radicals are produced in our bodies during normal body functions — and these free radicals contribute to aging and dysfunction. Antioxidants such as beta-carotene and vitamins C and E combat the effects of free radicals. Antioxidants have been shown to tie up these free radicals and take away their destructive power.
Studies show that the brain is particularly at risk for free radical damage. Although there’s no way to stop free radicals completely, we can reduce their destructive effect on the body by eating foods rich in antioxidants as part of a healthy diet, including:
Sources of beta-carotene: apricots, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, collards, peaches, pumpkin, spinach, sweet potato
Sources of vitamin C: blueberries, broccoli, grapefruit, kiwi, oranges, peppers, potatoes, strawberries, tomato
Sources of vitamin E: margarine, nuts and seeds, vegetable oils, wheat germ
3. Eat “Smart” Carbs for a Calming Effect
The connection between carbohydrates and mood is linked to the mood-boosting brain chemical, serotonin. Carbohydrate craving may be related to decreased serotonin activity, although experts are not sure if there is a link.
So, don’t shun all carbs — just make smart choices. Limit sugary foods and opt for smart or “complex” carbs (such as whole grains) rather than simple carbs (such as cakes and cookies), along with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and legumes, which all contribute healthy carbs and fiber.
4. Eat Protein-Rich Foods to Boost Alertness
Foods rich in protein, like turkey, tuna, or chicken, are rich in an amino acid called tyrosine. Tyrosine may help boost levels of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. This boost helps you feel alert and makes it easier to concentrate. Try to include a protein source in your diet several times a day, especially when you need to clear your mind and boost your energy.
Good sources of healthy proteins: beans and peas, lean beef, low-fat cheese, fish, milk, poultry, soy products, yogurt
5. Eat a Mediterranean-Type Diet
The Mediterranean diet is a balanced, healthy eating pattern that includes plenty of fruits, nuts, vegetables, cereals, legumes, and fish.
A Spanish study, using data from 4,211 men and 5,459 women, found that rates of depression tended to increase in men — especially smokers — as folate intake decreased. The same increase occurred for women — especially those who smoked or were not physically active — but with a decreased intake of another B-vitamin: B12. This wasn’t the first study to discover an association between these two vitamins and depression. Researchers wonder whether poor nutrient intake leads to depression or whether depression leads people to eat a poor diet.
Folate is found in Mediterranean diet staples like legumes, nuts, many fruits, and dark green vegetables. B12 can be found in all lean and low-fat animal products, such as fish and low-fat dairy products.
6. Get Plenty of Vitamin D
A 2010 national study found that the likelihood of having depression is higher in people with deficiency in vitamin D compared to people who are sufficient in vitamin D. In another study, researchers from the University of Toronto noticed that people who were suffering from depression, particularly those with seasonal affective disorder, tended to improve as their levels of vitamin D in the body increased over the normal course of a year. Vitamin D receptors are found in the brain. Researchers, though, are unsure how much vitamin D is ideal.
7. Select Selenium-Rich Foods
Selenium is a mineral that is essential to good health. Studies have reported an association between low selenium intake and poorer moods, although evidence isn’t conclusive on whether supplementation can help.
It is possible to take in too much selenium so that it becomes toxic. But this is unlikely if you’re getting it from foods rather than supplements, and it can’t hurt to make sure you’re eating foods that help you meet the recommended intake for selenium, which is 55 micrograms a day for adults. The good news is that foods rich in selenium are foods we should be eating anyway. They include:
- Beans and legumes
- Lean meat (lean pork and beef, skinless chicken and turkey)
- Low-fat dairy products
- Nuts and seeds (particularly brazil nuts)
- Seafood (oysters, clams, sardines, crab, saltwater fish, and freshwater fish)
- Whole grains (whole-grain pasta, brown rice, oatmeal, etc.)
8. Include Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Your Diet
We know that omega-3 fatty acids have innumerable health benefits. Recently, scientists have revealed that a deficit of omega-3 fatty acids is associated with depression. In one study, researchers determined that societies that eat a small amount of omega-3 fatty acids have a higher prevalence of major depressive disorder than societies that get ample omega-3 fatty acids. Other studies show that people who infrequently eat fish, which is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, are more likely to suffer from depression.
Sources of omega-3 fatty acids: fatty fish (anchovy, mackerel, salmon, sardines, shad, and tuna), flaxseed, and nuts.
Sources alpha-linolenic acid (another type of omega-3 fatty acid): flaxseed, canola oil, soybean oil, walnuts, and dark green leafy vegetables.
9. Watch Your Lifestyle Habits
Many people who are depressed also have problems with alcohol and/or drugs. Not only can alcohol and drugs interfere with mood, sleep, and motivation, they can also reduce the effectiveness of your depression medications. In addition, drinks and foods containing caffeine can trigger anxiety and make it difficult to sleep at night. Cutting out caffeine or stopping caffeine after noon each day can also help you get a better night’s sleep.
10. Stay at a Healthy Weight
Findings published in the journal of Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, show a link between obesity and depression, indicating that people who are obese may be more likely to become depressed. In addition, according to this study, people who are depressed are more likely to become obese. Researchers believe the link between obesity and depression may result from physiological changes that occur in the immune system and hormones with depression. If you have a weight problem, talk with your doctor about healthy ways to manage it with diet and exercise.