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Can What You Eat Improve Depression?

Depression is different than a passing case of the blues. It’s a condition that affects both body and mind, that can cause persistent low mood, aches and pain, sleep and appetite disruptions, and fatigue. It’s strikingly common—more than 16 million American adults are diagnosed with major depressive disorder in any given year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of American. And in the COVID-19 era, it’s becoming even more common. A recent study found that the prevalence of depression symptoms has increased threefold thanks to the pandemic.

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The good news is: Depression is treatable. If you experience symptoms, start by talking to your doctor about your moods. He or she can talk you about the variety of treatment options to help improve your mood. A potential supplement to treatment can be found in the emerging field of nutritional psychology, which highlights the overlooked connection between diet and mood.

“The new understanding is that food affects your mood and what you eat is highly connected to how your brain is going to function,” says Eva Selhub, M.D., an integrative medicine physician and author. Here’s what current research, and the experts, suggest about how to boost your mood with what is (or isn’t) on the end of your fork.

Put Out the Fire

Researchers are currently studying a possible link between inflammation and depression, with some going so far as to call depression an inflammatory disease. What we eat can contribute to inflammation—especially diets high in ultra-processed foods. “These foods are loaded with refined oils, sugars, additives, colorings, and other objectionable ingredients,” says integrative nutritionist Kathie Swift. “And they’re all abundant in the modern, industrialized diet.” One way to help reduce inflammation is to ditch processed foods for whole grains and fruits and veggies as much as you can. Trade out white rice for brown rice, white bread for whole grain, and regular pasta for whole wheat. Limit those sweets and white-flour based snacks, and reach for an apple or a few almonds instead. It should be noted that the research is still evolving, but bringing down inflammation in the body may improve your mood.

Feed Your Gut

Preliminary research has hinted at a possible connection between the beneficial bacteria found in the gut, also known as the microbiome, and mood. Keeping the microbiome alive and happy may be a good way to boost your mood. “Prebiotic food and food with live active cultures, like yogurt or fresh sauerkraut, may provide the gut with the right stuff it needs to thrive,” says Swift. And don’t forget about fiber. Fiber-rich foods, including beans and whole grains, feed those beneficial bacteria that support mental and physical health.

Enjoy Good Fats

“Reach for foods that provide healthy fats that support brain health, especially foods rich in omega-3 fats,” says Selhub. A Brigham and Women's Hospital study found that foods with omega-3 or monounsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil, nuts, and avocado, were best for brain health.

Smooth Out Spikes

Recent research suggests that blood sugar plays a significant role in mental health. When your blood sugar spikes or crashes it can affect your mood in a major way, causing low moods or even contributing to depression. Some of the best ways to keep your blood glucose stable include steering clear of high-sugar, low-fiber snacks; and, trying to include lean protein, complex carbs, and healthy fat in your meals and snacks.

Eat Clean

Ultimately, the research suggests that the kind of diet that can impact your mood is the same eating pattern that leads to overall good health. Whether you call it “clean eating,” the “Mediterranean diet,” or “mostly plant-based,” we’re talking about a diet that contains fresh, unprocessed fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, unsweetened dairy, fish, and olive oil and that limits processed foods. Other studies have looked at the flip side of this equation and it suggests diets high in red meat and processed foods may have a negative effect on mood.

Depression is a serious condition, and you shouldn’t try to fix it on your own with a trip to the health-food store. If you’ve been feeling blue for more than two weeks, or if you aren’t enjoying things that normally give you pleasure, you should call your doctor. But in conjunction with other forms of treatment, what you eat can play a surprisingly big role in helping you feel better.

This article was medically reviewed by Happify Medical Director, Murray Zucker, M.D.

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