Nutrition And Depression: Meals To Aid Mental Health

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated November 8, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Depression is often considered an isolated condition, primarily affecting the brain and emotions. In literature, media, and some medical research, authors choose to relegate the mechanisms of depression to the mind rather than emphasize its whole-body connections to physical and mental health. When treating depression, considering how the entire body plays a role in maintaining or replacing maladaptive thought processes that can worsen symptoms can be essential.

Your Diet Could Be Contributing To Your Symptoms Of Depression

How Do Food And Nutrition Impact The Body? 

The food you eat impacts your body’s functioning. Although popular nutrition culture may discuss “calories in and calories out,” nutrition entails more than an equation of consuming calories and exercising. 

Each time a morsel of food enters the body, a multi-varied and complex reaction begins. The entire body works harmoniously to properly digest food, assimilate nutrients, and expel unnecessary material. 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.

Although food consumption is often viewed primarily through the lens of weight changes or preventing heart disease, food contributes significantly to all areas of bodily health, from circulatory health to mental and emotional health. Failing to provide healthy and nutrient-dense foods can result in mental health conditions. More than an issue of weight, diet is a matter of overall health, wellness, and resilience and can dramatically and overwhelmingly impact mental health concerns. For this reason, depression and eating are connected.

What Is Depression? 

Depression is a blanket term for the depressive disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). It is often used to refer to major depressive disorder (MDD), the most common depression diagnosis. 

Other depressive disorders include: 

  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) 
  • Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PDD)
  • Substance-induced depressive disorder
  • Postpartum or peripartum depression (PPD) 
  • Major depressive disorder with psychotic features
  • Other specified depressive disorder (OSDD)  

Depression is not “sadness” or “laziness.” It is a severe mental illness that can completely change an individual’s personality, mental health, and life, with symptoms filtering into every aspect of functioning.

People with depression may experience sleep disturbances, appetite changes, weight changes, increased anxiety levels, decreased interest in previously enjoyed hobbies, and difficulty finding motivation. However, depression is highly treatable.


The Connection Between Food And Depression 

Specific foods for depression may decrease symptoms, whereas others can worsen them. Meals like hot dogs, frozen lasagna trays, and sodium-rich canned vegetables can, in excess, negatively impact general health. Diets rich in whole foods can actively aid general health. Although food cannot cure an individual of depression or depressive symptoms, mental health may be significantly improved by a healthier eating plan. When searching for a way to improve mental health, you might choose to start with what you eat. 

The mechanisms behind food and depression aren’t necessarily the same for everyone. For instance, someone who struggles with depression and an eating disorder might experience 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. 

How Does Food Improve Mental Health? 

Individuals who struggle solely with depression might struggle to find an adequate appetite for daily caloric and nutritional needs. However, there are some ways in which food and nutrition consistently interact with depression and mental health, including the following. 

Improved Health 

Including when someone lives with depression, improving eating habits can improve general health. General health can increase the body’s ability to synthesize and distribute nutrients properly. It may have a hand in managing and supporting hormone production, which may be imbalanced in individuals with depression.

Elevated Mood 

Eating healthy food improves general bodily function, leading to elevated mood. While an “elevated mood” may not wholly ease the symptoms of depression, it can be a source of complementary support for individuals living with a mental illness. 

Improved Bodily Function 

All systems in the body run more efficiently if they are adequately powered and motivated, including your nervous system. Food is the fuel by which all body systems function, and failing to provide adequate fuel in one area can disrupt other areas. For instance, if the mouth is not producing the enzymes required to break down morsels, the stomach’s bile production might not break down and assimilate the nutrients into the body effectively. 

If these nutrients are not removed from the food and sent to various body systems, such can lead to a breakdown in liver and kidney function. Although not problematic in isolation, consistently eating foods that do not interact synergistically in the body can result in inflammation and an imbalance or breakdown of basic body systems—including mental health.

Meals To Aid Mental Health

Specific dietary identifiers and parameters may help individuals diagnosed with depression cope with their symptoms and move forward, including the following. 

The Mediterranean Diet 

The Mediterranean diet is a dietary framework that emphasizes healthy fats, lean proteins, and natural carbohydrates. This diet emphasizes savory foods and does not include foods with 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. 

The Low-Carb Diet 

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 improved health in some cases. This health boost may be due to the types of carbohydrates consumed rather than the number consumed. 

Carbohydrates derived from fruits and vegetables and whole grains can be healthier than carbohydrates from highly processed foods and grains processed down to the endosperm. Unhealthy carbohydrates have lower nutrient contents and may promote inflammation, which can lead to mental health distress.

How Are Depression And Diet Connected? 

Although the precise reasons for the interaction between diet and depression are not entirely known and warrant further study, there are some suggestions that inflammation is often a cause. Diets high in processed, hyper-palatable foods increase the likelihood of whole-body inflammation. 

Inflammation can lead to a host of health challenges, including but not limited to diabetes, heart disease, and dementia later in life. Inflammation can disrupt the mechanisms for managing hormone function, absorbing nutrients, and distributing waste. A buildup of waste material, harmful substances, and lipid deposits can further launch the human body into disrepair and inflammation, creating a cycle. 

It can feel overwhelming for individuals with depression to implement an entirely new dietary regimen—especially one that removes comfort and convenience foods in favor of fresh, whole foods, which can require more effort to prepare. A mental health professional with experience in nutrition and psychotherapy or a nutrition coach willing to work alongside a mental health practitioner may be valuable assets.

Your Diet Could Be Contributing To Your Symptoms Of Depression

Seeking Support For Depression

Learning how to create food plans to manage and treat depression may be accomplished with support from a doctor focusing on psychology and nutrition or a treatment team, including a nutritionist or dietician and a mental health practitioner. 

Online therapy may be an appealing option for people who struggle with being motivated to attend an in-person therapeutic setting. To speak with an online therapist through a platform like BetterHelp, you can sign up and receive a match within 48 hours. You can have therapy sessions from home with an internet connection and a smart device. 

Online therapy consistently shows efficacy in treating people with a diagnosis of depression. A 2021 study that sought to compare engagement and attrition across various web-based nutrition programs concluded that online dietary interventions effectively engage populations with depression. Since the study, findings continue to support the promise of telemedicine for dietary consultation.


Whichever route you take to achieve support, diet alone may not be enough to change the symptoms of depression. However, nutrition is often a powerful piece of the mental health puzzle that allows people with depression to manage their symptoms and experience long-term change. Take the first step in establishing change by contacting a therapist or another provider in your area or online for guidance and support.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone

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