Nutrition And Depression: Meals To Aid Mental Health

Updated January 16, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Depression is often thought of as an isolated condition, primarily affecting the brain and emotions. In literature, media, and even in some medical research, authors choose relegate the mechanisms of depression almost entirely to the mind rather than emphasize the whole-body connections it has to overall physical and mental health. When treating depression, it is essential to consider how the entire body plays a role in maintaining and/or replacing detrimental thought processes and behavioral patterns.

Your Diet Could Be Contributing To Your Symptoms Of Depression

Nutrition: How Food Affects The Body

The food people eat make up the body’s foundation. Although much of nutrition has been boiled down to “calories in and calories out,” nutrition entails much more than a simple equation of consuming X number of calories and exercising X number of minutes. 

Each time a morsel of food enters the body, a multi-varied and complex reaction begins. The entire body works in harmony to properly digest food, assimilate nutrients, and expel any 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 all too often viewed primarily through the lens of staving off weight gain 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 which are just as potent (or more harmful) than obesity, diabetes, or heart disease. More than an issue 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 conditions most commonly known as depressive disorders. Such disorders include (but are not limited to) bipolar disorder, 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 filtering into every aspect of life. People with depression may experience sleep disturbances, appetite changes, weight changes, increased levels of anxiety, decreased interest in previously beloved hobbies, and difficulty finding motivation. Understandably, treating depression and doing so effectively is of great value in improving mental health and general health.

Food And Depression

Food can both sustain and mitigate depression. Meals like hot dogs, frozen lasagna trays, and sodium-rich canned vegetables – which are heavily processed or contain unnatural preservatives – can, in excess, have negative impacts on general health, while diets rich in whole foods can actively aid generalhealtth. 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 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. 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 can improve general health. General health can increase the body’s ability to synthesize and distribute nutrients properly and may have a hand in managing and supporting hormone production, which may be imbalanced in individuals with depression.

  • Elevated Mood: Even in the presence of depression, 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 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 nervous system. Food is the fuel by which all body systems function, and failing to provide adequate fuel in one area can lead to a disruption in other areas. If, for instance, the mouth is not producing the enzymes required to break down morsels, the stomach’s bile production might not be able to effectively break down and assimilate the nutrients into the body. If these nutrients are not removed from the food and sent to various body systems, that can lead to a breakdown in liver and kidney function, for example. 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.

Your Diet Could Be Contributing To Your Symptoms Of Depression

Meals To Aid Mental 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. Ccertain dietary identifiers and parameters may help individuals diagnosed with depression.

The Mediterranean Diet: The Mediterranean diet is a dietary framework that emphasizes healthy fats, 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. The latter type of carbohydrates have lower nutrient contents and may promote inflammation, which 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 phenomenon can lead to a host of health problems, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and even 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 negative cycle. 

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 which can require more effort to prepare. A mental health professional with experience in nutrition and psychotherapy or a nutrition coach who is willing to work alongside a mental health practitioner may be valuable assets, and both types of professionals are accessible via online platforms like BetterHelp.

Seeking Support For Depression

Learning how to create food plans to help manage and treat depression may be accomplished with help from a single doctor, whose focus is on both psychology and nutrition, or it may be achieved with a treatment team, including a nutritionist or dietician and a mental health practitioner. Online therapy may be an appealing option for people who may struggle with having the motivation to attend an in-person therapeutic setting. To speak with a BetterHelp therapist, you simply need to have a safe internet connection. They can even assist you in preparing nutritious, whole food-dense meals in your own kitchen! 

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

Takeaway

Whichever route you take to achieve support – and know that there are many paths -- remember that diet alone may not be enough to change the symptoms of depression. That said, nutrition 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. Take the first step in establishing healthy, sustainable eating behaviors by reaching out to a BetterHelp therapist today.

Commonly Asked Questions

What is a good depression meal?
What should I cook for a depressed person?
What foods were eaten during the Depression?
What food is a natural antidepressant?
What is the best diet for anxiety and depression?
Is soup good for depression?
What should you eat when you have no motivation to cook?
What should you eat when you don't feel like eating?
How can I eat healthily when I am depressed and poor?
What was a typical Depression-era breakfast?

You Don’t Have To Face Depression Alone. Our Experienced Counselors Can Help.

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
You Don’t Have To Face Depression AloneGet Depression Help!