Foods That Can Help Depression

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant
Updated October 20, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

A diagnosis of depression comes with a variety of symptoms – and in some cases, this includes major changes in your appetite.

If you’re struggling to find the appetite to eat your favorite foods, or find yourself eating more than normal when depressed, you’re not alone. People with clinical depression, also known as major depressive disorder, may experience many symptoms, including loss of energy, changes in appetite and food choices, and even changes in sexual health. For some, appetite changes are the most notable and can lead to weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting.

There are several low-cost strategies to improve your eating habits, even when symptoms of depression make it challenging to eat a healthy, varied diet. While there isn’t a specific diet or magic food to “cure” depression or other mental health disorders, understanding the connection between depression, food, and mental health can help you design a plan to nourish your mind and body. 

Struggling To Eat Well During A Depressive Episode?

How Does Depression Affect Appetite? 

If you’re living with clinical unipolar depression—or even the low episodes of bipolar disorder—you may have experienced its effects on your appetite firsthand. During a depressive episode, you might use food as a coping mechanism and eat more than normal. For many of us, food is an immediate source of pleasure and can provide comfort, especially when we’re emotionally distressed or living with a mental illness. 

At other times, depression might make you feel unwilling or unmotivated to eat. Even if there’s food in front of you or you haven’t eaten for an extended period of time, you may simply feel disinterested in food. 

Additionally, appetite changes may result from medications commonly used to treat the disorder, which can feel like a double blow.

So what gives? What must be the connection between depression and eating?

Researchers are still studying the biological mechanisms responsible for these changes in appetite: but in general, details suggests that people with depression experience changes in brain activity in response to food, which can cause reductions or increases in appetite.

Moreover, because depression tends to lower energy levels, people may struggle to find the energy to complete basic tasks – including making and eating food. Over time, unhealthy food-related behaviors can catalyze a cycle of poor eating habits, which tend to worsen overall mental health.

How To Eat Well When You’re Feeling Depressed

If you’re in the midst of a depressive episode, whipping up a gourmet meal is likely one of the last things on your mind. For many people, it’s not realistic or affordable to cook up a five-course meal, an elaborate breakfast, or a fancy vitamin smoothie on a daily basis. 

However, there are some vitamins that may improve depression symptoms for some people and may be worth your while to invest in, include:

Like cooking, trying to undertake a new vitamin regimen in the middle of a depressive episode can be challenging. It also may not be financially realistic. 

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with major depression or are simply trying to improve your overall health (such as blood sugar levels), there’s no pressure to make a meal worthy of a social media post or incorporate a dozen multivitamins into your day. It should feel available and rewarding to make food that tastes good and makes you feel good, too – and there’s no need to spend an excess of time or money in the process. 

To prioritize healthy eating while living with depression, keep these seven tips in mind. Feel free to adapt them to your lifestyle and dietary needs and consult your doctor and/or a license for more personalized suggestions. Always seek medical advice before trying new supplements or vitamins.

1. Make Groceries Easy

Getting to the grocery store can be a hassle, especially when you’re not feeling your best. But fortunately, there are easy ways to simplify the process.

First: make a list! It might seem basic, but a handwritten list or note in your phone can reduce the likelihood of getting lost or overwhelmed in the grocery store. When making your grocery list, focus on wholesome foods like eggs, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, as well as pre-prepared options. If microwavable or premade meals fit your budget, they can supplement the days when you don’t have the energy to cook.

A final tip: If possible, you can also budget for the occasional grocery delivery. Even if it’s just once a month, delivery makes it easier to prioritize healthy, whole foods over quick take-out or processed snacks.

2. Cook Low-Effort Meals

If you have the motivation to cook, prioritize simple, comforting meals with minimal ingredients and prep time. Some examples include:

  • Tuna salad with canned tuna
  • Whole-grain toast with peanut butter and banana
  • Microwaveable oatmeal with honey and your fruit of choice
  • Eggs with toast and sautéed vegetables

Consider keeping a list of easy recipes in a notebook or as a list in your phone, so you’ll feel extra prepared during a depressive episode.

3. Keep Snacks Handy

Snacks count, too! If your appetite is lower than normal, healthy snacking can be an act of self-care. If you’re not up to cooking, try to keep granola bars, nuts, fruit, and other small bites around the house, in your car, or in your purse. Even if you’re not in the mood for a complete meal, you’ll have healthy options to sustain you during a long day. 

When planning your snacks, try to prioritize these three food groups

  • Fatty acids—especially omega-3 fatty acids—which support your brain and nervous system. Sources of omega-3s include nuts like walnuts, eggs, seeds such as flaxseeds, and fatty fish like salmon.
  • Lean protein rich foods, which give you the energy to think and react quickly. Top protein sources include eggs, soybeans, nuts and seeds.
  • Complex carbohydrates, which offer long-term energy. Sweet potatoes, quinoa, millet, and beets are good sources of complex carbohydrates. When possible, opt for these options over carbohydrates from sugary foods. 

4. Stock Up On Essential Foods And Favorites

It’s not always possible to plan for changes in mental health, but if you’re prone to depression, try to keep your pantry and freezer stocked with basic foods you love to eat, even when you’re feeling down.

Essential foods include canned beans and soups, nut butters, oatmeal, and spices to elevate more basic meals. Some people like to have frozen meals on hand, and you can even prepare and freeze your own homemade meals, like burritos or pasta sauce, to eat when you’re feeling less inspired to cook. 

5. Stick To An Eating Schedule

If you’re feeling depressed and regularly forgetting to eat, you might benefit from scheduling your meals and snacks, just like you’d schedule your commute to work or trip to the gym. 

By scheduling specific times to eat, you’re taking care of your body and also giving yourself an opportunity to practice mindfulness, simply by slowing down and noticing how your food tastes.

Of course, some days are hectic, and it’s not always possible to sit down for an extended meal. On those days, tip #3 is especially relevant: take advantage of grab-and-go snacks and pre-made meals, which keep you fueled when depression overlaps with your busy schedule.

6. Budget For Takeout

If it aligns with your budget, healthy takeout can be an easy, comforting option when you’re dealing with low levels of energy and feeling too depressed to cook a meal or snack for yourself. 

Even if it’s just once a week or once a month, treating yourself to a healthier takeout option can taste great and put you in a better mood and make you feel better physically, too. When reviewing the takeout menu, health experts recommend going for whole grains (like brown rice), picking a lean protein, and prioritizing veggies. 

7. Be Kind To Yourself

Depression is not an easy condition to navigate, and it’s not possible to eat perfectly “clean” all the time. Although a healthy diet includes whole, nutrient-dense foods, it’s just as essential to eat foods that you genuinely enjoy and look forward to eating. Don’t feel like you have to follow the Mediterranean diet (or any other eating plan) to take care of yourself. 

As you figure out what kind of foods work best for your taste buds, lifestyle, and budget, practice kindness toward yourself. On occasion, it’s perfectly okay to enjoy your favorite comfort food, especially if it’s the only food that sounds good in the moment. 

Online Therapists Can Help

For most people, depression doesn’t just affect their appetite. This condition can impact all areas of your life, including your work, relationships, immune system, and physical well-being. 

If you’re looking for a supportive, knowledgeable person to walk alongside you during a depressive episode, online therapists are equipped to help. Digital platforms like BetterHelp feature thousands of licensed therapists, who understand the complexity of depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and other mental health conditions, and can help you develop coping strategies to improve your diet and other aspects of your lifestyle.

Today, online therapy is often just as effective as face-to-face counseling, especially for common conditions like depression and anxiety. Following a six-week-long, online therapy program, one study found that therapist-guided digital therapy reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety among a group of patients during the COVID-19 crisis. While researchers continue to study the role of online therapy in depression treatment, both patient reviews and current studies illuminate the promise of online treatments.

Takeaway

Eating healthy isn’t always easy, and a diagnosis of depression can make it extra challenging to find the time and motivation to eat well.

Fortunately, these simple strategies make it possible to eat nutritious, delicious food, even during depressive episodes. Your healthcare team – which may include your doctor, therapist, and even a nutritionist – can offer additional insights that align with your unique lifestyle, values, and mental health goals.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone

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