Foods That Can Help Depression
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.
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?
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:
- Vitamin D
- B Vitamins
- Selenium (Brazil Nuts are a rich source of selenium)
- Alpha Linolenic Acid (plant-based Omega-3)
- Beta Carotene (found in orange, yellow, and green leafy vegetables and fruits)
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.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Food And Depression
1. What are the best kinds of food for depression?
There are no “miracle foods” that can cure or treat depression. However, eating a healthy, varied diet is generally linked to better mental health.
Some research shows that a diet rich in fruit, whole grains, vegetables, fish, olive oil and low-fat dairy is associated with a lower risk of depression, according to a 2017 study. The researchers compared this to a diet with higher amounts of red meat, refined grains, sweets, and high-fat dairy products, which was linked to a higher risk of depression. Other research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce depression risk and improve mood.
In general, health experts recommend a nutrient-dense diet with whole, unprocessed foods, which can lower the risk of depression and improve existing symptoms. Before making any dietary changes, seek advice from your healthcare provider.
2. What food is a natural antidepressant?
While you might see claims of “miracle foods” and supplements on television or in magazines, there isn’t a single food that can cure the symptoms of depression. However, researchers have identified specific foods rich in nutrients that may improve depressive symptoms and overall mental health.
One study assessed a list of foods high in 12 “antidepressant nutrients,” which include folate, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and potassium. These nutrients are highlighted by a growing number of studies, suggesting that diet may play a preventive role in cases of depression and related disorders.
Based on the researchers’ analysis, foods with the highest concentration of antidepressant nutrients were oysters, mussels, various kinds of seafood, and organ meats, as well as plant foods like leafy greens, lettuces, peppers, and cruciferous vegetables.
In most cases of depression, healthcare providers recommend therapy and/or medication in addition to nutrient-dense foods.
3. What foods are good for serotonin levels?
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, that helps stabilize mood, sleep, appetite, and other essential functions in the body.
While serotonin doesn’t occur naturally in food, you can maintain healthy serotonin levels by eating foods rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that supports the synthesis of serotonin. Tryptophan is mostly found in high-protein foods, including meat, fish, and poultry.
To make serotonin, your body also needs carbohydrates, which allow tryptophan to pass the blood-brain barrier and ultimately convert to serotonin. In your diet, try to prioritize complex carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, millet, and beets.
4. What is the best natural antidepressant?
If you’re considering medication for depression, you may have heard about “natural antidepressants,” which are alternatives to antidepressant medication. Several studies suggest that S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe), St. John's Wort, 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), and other supplements can reduce the symptoms of depression. However, more research and control are needed to determine if these supplements are safe and effective.
Remember that if a supplement is marketed as "natural," it doesn't mean that it’s safe or effective. Before starting any natural antidepressant or another supplement, always consult your physician for guidance.
5. How Can I Increase My Serotonin Levels Quickly?
It’s possible to increase your serotonin levels quickly without taking medicine. Some easy ways to boost your serotonin include:
Physical exercise, which makes your body release more tryptophan: the amino acid used by the brain to make serotonin.
Light exposure, either to sunlight or bright light, especially in the context of light therapy.
Eating more complex carbohydrates, which makes the body produce more insulin. This pulls more amino acids into your muscles and makes it easier for tryptophan to reach your brain.
6. What Foods Give You Happy Hormones?
The four “feel-good” hormones are dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin. For a dose of happiness, focus on foods that promote higher levels of these four hormones, as well as healthy lifestyle choices.
For dopamine, focus on poultry, dairy, avocadoes, bananas, pumpkin and sesame seeds, and soy.
For serotonin, eat more complex carbohydrates, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains.
For endorphins, exercise regularly, practice meditation, and engage in self-care activities, which may include gathering with loved ones to eat favorite foods, connect, and laugh together.
Like endorphins, you can increase oxytocin by exercising, spending time with loved ones, and through physical intimacy.
In addition to these feel-good hormones, other foods contain antioxidants that promote health and happiness. Some examples include:
Dark chocolate, which boosts mood by raising endorphin levels
Foods high in probiotics, such as kefir, yogurt, and sauerkraut, which support gut health and, relatedly, mental health
Grapes, which contain an antioxidant called resveratrol that can boost your mood
Remember that everyone’s body is different. Depending on food allergies, sensitivities, and other individual differences, so-called “happy foods” might not work for your body – and that’s okay! Take time to build a diet and meal plan that optimizes your mental and physical health.
7. What Can I Eat To Improve My Mood?
For a mood boost, medical experts at the University of Michigan recommend the following foods:
Foods rich in tryptophan, like turkey, nuts, milk, salmon, eggs, soy products, and spinach. Tryptophan supports serotonin production, which can elevate mood.
Foods high in magnesium, including nuts, whole grains, and legumes
Antioxidant-rich foods like berries and dark chocolate, which help reduce inflammation and stress in the brain and body
Sources of omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish like salmon, sardines, lake trout, and albacore tuna
Coffee, tea, and wine, which contain polyphenols: antioxidants that can decrease inflammation in the body
For the greatest impact, combine these dietary mood boosters with regular exercise, social support, and therapy.
Do people use food to cope with depression?
Why is food important in depression?
What is depression eating called?
Why does eating make my depression better?
Do people eat to avoid depression?
Why do I eat when sad?
Do depressed people eat late?
Which fruit is good for depression?
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