Nutrition and Depression: Meals to Aid Mental Health

Updated February 17, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Kimberly L Brownridge , LPC, NCC, BCPC Counsel The Mind, LLC

Depression is often thought of as an isolated condition, primarily affecting the brain and emotions. In literature, media, and even in some medical research, the mechanisms of depression are relegated almost entirely to the mind, rather than bringing the rest of the body into the picture to identify the whole-body connection to health, mental health, and depression. This connection could be a significant means of adequately treating depressive symptoms and other mental health issues.

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Nutrition: How Food Affects the Body

The food people eat become the blocks through which the entire body is built. Although much of nutrition has been boiled down to “calories in and calories out.” Nutrition is far more than a simple equation of making sure you are consuming X number of calories, and exercising X number of calories, to either sustain your body or create a deficit (in the case of weight loss). Instead, each time a morsel of food enters the body, a multi-varied and complex reaction begins instantaneously. The entire body works in harmony to properly digest food, assimilate nutrients, and expel any unnecessary material. Far from calories or weight being the sole determinants of a healthy diet, designed to improve and enrich mental health, eating for mental health means eating whole, fresh foods, and limiting exposure to processed, packaged, and hyper-palatable foods, such as hot dogs, candy, and fried foods, to keep your mental health functioning optimally.

Although food consumption is all too often viewed primarily through the lens of weight and heart disease, food contributes significantly to all areas of bodily health, from circulatory health to mental health, to emotional health. Food is the matter that human bodies are created with. Failing to provide healthy and nutrient-dense foods result in disease—even if that disease manifests as a mental health issue, rather than obesity, diabetes, or heart disease. Far from being just an issue of weight, diet is a matter of overall health, wellness, and resilience, and can have dramatic and overwhelming impacts on mental health concerns.

Depression: A Review

“Depression” is a blanket term used to describe mental health disorders, most commonly known as depressive disorders. These disorders include (but are not limited to) Bipolar Disorders, Major Depressive Disorder, and Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder. Far from just “feeling sad,” depression involves a complete change in an individual’s personality, mental health, and life, with symptoms creeping their way into every aspect of life. People with depression may experience sleep disturbances, appetite changes, weight changes, increased levels of anxiety, decreased interest in things previously loved or passionate about, and difficulty finding motivation. Understandably, treating depression and doing so effectively is of great value in improving mental health and general health.

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Food and Depression

Food can both detract from and add to depression. Meals comprised primarily of hot dogs, frozen lasagna, and sodium-rich canned vegetables can wreak havoc on general health (and, by virtue, mental health), while diets rich in whole foods can actively aid general health and, by proxy, mental health. Although food is not typically enough to completely heal an individual from depression or depressive symptoms, mental health can be vastly improved by a better diet plan and enhanced general health. When searching for a way to improve mental health, food is an excellent place to start.

The mechanisms behind food and depression are not clear-cut, nor will they be the same for everyone; for instance, someone who struggles with both depression and an eating disorder might struggle with feelings of shame and disgust that follow eating. People who struggle with depression and anxiety might worry they are taking too much food from the table and refrain from eating to satiety, instead always shortchanging themselves. Individuals who struggle solely with depression might struggle to find an appetite robust enough to take in daily caloric and nutritive needs regularly. With that being said, there are some ways in which food and nutrition consistently interact with depression and mental health.

These include:

  • Improved health: Even in the presence of depression, improving eating habits will improve general health. General health can increase the body’s ability to synthesize and distribute nutrients properly and may have a hand in regulating and supporting hormone production, which may be faulty in individuals with depression. Improving diet could improve mental health.
  • Elevated mood: Even in the presence of depression, eating healthy food improves general bodily function, leading to elevated mood. However, the “elevated mood” in question may not wholly ease the symptoms of depression, it can be an excellent source of support and complementary treatment for individuals struggling with mental health disorders.
  • Improved bodily function: All systems in the body run more efficiently if they are adequately powered and motivated, including your mental health. Food is the fuel by which all bodily systems function, and failing to provide adequate fuel in one area can lead to a breakdown in other areas. If, for instance, the mouth is not producing the enzymes required to begin breaking down a bite of hot dogs, the stomach’s bile production might not be adequate to effectively break down and assimilate the nutrients in a food item. These nutrients may then not be properly removed from the food and sent to various bodily systems, leading to a breakdown in the proper liver and kidney function, not to mention the gastrointestinal system. Although this is not problematic in isolation, consistently eating foods that do not interact synergistically in the body will result in inflammation and the breakdown of basic bodily systems—including mental health.
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Although the Great Depression refers to a time in history, it can feel as though it is aptly applied to individuals struggling with intense and long-term symptoms of mental health decline such as depression. Like the Great Depression and depression-era struggles, individuals with a diagnosis of a depressive disorder or suspicion of such a disorder are fighting a heavy tide in trying to stay on top of symptoms and manage their condition. Food and proper nutrition are just one of the ways in which treatment plans can be more thoroughly supported and complemented to improve mental health.

Meals to Aid Mental Health

While Depression-era foods are often regarded with a sense of bleak sadness, there was some invention involved for many families living through the Great Depression. This same inventive spirit can help individuals with depression fight their symptoms and improve their overall health. Inventiveness may be necessary to incorporate all of the elements recommended by health professionals (in both the mental health and physical health fields). Some of the ingredients and recommendations may not be easy to come by. The following dietary identifiers and parameters may help individuals diagnosed with depression or are showing symptoms of a mental health disorder. They are:

  • The Mediterranean Diet: The Mediterranean diet is a dietary framework that emphasizes healthy fats and lean proteins and natural carbohydrates. This diet places a greater emphasis on savory foods and does not include foods with extremely high glycemic content, instead opting for the rich flavors of fats, oils, vegetables, lemon juice, and fish. This particular diet has been linked to a decreased likelihood of depression and improved mental health.
  • Low Carbohydrate Diets: Although the official recommendation from the governing board of dietetics suggests that carbohydrates should make up the bulk of an individual’s diet, low carbohydrate diets have been linked to improving general health. This is likely due to the types of carbohydrates being consumed, rather than the actual number of carbohydrates being consumed. Carbohydrates derived from fruits and vegetables and whole grains are far superior to the carbohydrates that come from highly-processed foods and grains that have been degraded and processed down to the endosperm, which have lower nutrient contents and may promote inflammation. Inflammation can lead to mental health distress.

The Links To Diet and Depression

Although the precise reasons for the interaction between diet and depression are not precisely known and warrant further study. There are some suggestions that inflammation is largely the cause; diets high in processed, hyper-palatable foods dramatically increase the likelihood of whole-body inflammation. This leads to a host of health problems, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and some have postulated, even dementia later in life. All of these inflammation areas can make the proper pathways to regulate hormone function, nutrient absorption, and distribution, and detox function to decrease. Causing the body to accrue a buildup of waste material, harmful substances, and lipid deposits, all of which can further throw the human body into disrepair and inflammation. Depression is frequently linked to skewed hormones, which could be tied back to diet, inflammation, and impaired hormone, nutrient, and detox functions. Diet matters for mental health.

Although this is important work to consider and the conclusions drawn about the importance of a healthy diet when treating depression matter significantly, it can feel overwhelming for individuals in the midst of depression to implement an entirely new dietary regimen—especially one that removes comfort and convenience foods, in favor of fresh, whole foods that require preparation. It is for this reason that people with depression could not only learn eating habits from the Depression era (making do with what one has, creating unique combinations of food, and finding ways to create food where there was none) but could also benefit from the intervention of a mental health professional who has worked in both nutrition and psychotherapy, or a nutrition coach who is willing to work alongside a mental health practitioner, including those who work through online platforms such as BetterHelp.

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Treating mental health can be a long road, and adding another element to a treatment plan can feel daunting for some. But just as people were able to pull through the Great Depression stronger, more resilient, and with a greater understanding of how to care for themselves. Individuals who dive deep into diet and how it interferes or interacts with depression and mental health may find themselves developing greater strength and resilience for future struggles with depression. Learning how to create food plans to help manage and treat depression may be done with a single doctor, whose focus is on both psychology and nutrition, or it may be done with a treatment team, including a nutritionist or dietician, and a mental health practitioner. Whichever route you take, remember that diet alone may not be enough to change the symptoms of depression. However, it is often a powerful and important piece of the mental health puzzle that allows people with depression to manage their symptoms, and experience long-term change.


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