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Is Food Depressing You?

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Sure, eating a tub of ice cream may cause some tears of guilt afterwards, but there are no specific foods that are proven to cause depression. Instead, research suggests certain eating patterns might be associated with symptoms like sadness and anxiety [1]. Specifically, diets low in B vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids and high in saturated fat and trans fats (yep — even those beloved potato chips!) may be linked to depression [2] [3] [4].

Depressing Diets – The Need-to-Know

Photo by Caitlin Covington

French fries and Twinkies may taste delish, but there’s a reason to beware eating too much saturated fat and trans fat (even besides high cholesterol and a higher risk of coronary heart disease)  [5]. Research has linked depression to a diet high in saturated fats (found in animal-based foods such as meat, milk, and cheese) and trans fats, otherwise known as partially hydrogenated oils [6]. In one six-year study, researchers found people who ate more trans fats were at greater risk for depression than those who consumed smaller amounts of the terrible T’s [7]. It turns out trans fats may increase the risk for feeling down in the dumps because they cause inflammation in the heart and brain [7]. And although it’s not clear whether inflammation directly causes depression, studies have found depressed patients show higher levels of inflammation than other people [9] [10].

But don’t blame it all on the potato chips! Research suggests certain nutritional deficiencies may also contribute to symptoms of depression [1]. Another study followed middle-aged adults for five years and found those who ate greater amounts of processed foods (like processed meat, sweet desserts, fried food, and refined cereals) were more likely to develop depressive symptoms than those who ate more natural, whole foods (like vegetables, fruits, and fish) [4].

Scientists suspect the crowd who prefers sweet treats over fruits and veggies are skimping on antioxidants, which may protect against depression [4]. They may also be missing out on whole foods rich in folate, a nutrient that protects neurotransmitters in the brain, since patients with depression have about 25 percent lower folate levels than healthy adults [4] [1]. And a hardcore sweat session may not be the only reason to chug some protein: It’s also possible that diets lacking in protein and fatty acids can cause nervous system dysfunction and increase the risk for depression [4] [1]. On the other hand, scientists can’t say for sure that eating doughnuts for dinner is the culprit behind anyone’s mental health issues.

Beat the Blues – Your Action Plan

Depression and nutrition is a chicken-and-egg kinda’ deal — it’s hard to know whether depression causes unhealthy eating or unhealthy eating results in depression. Research suggests depressed people tend to get caught in a cycle and continue to make poor food choices that may worsen their symptoms [1].

But there may be a reason to rejoice after all — although there’s no certifiable food cure for depression, eating a varied diet may help banish the blues [1]. Noshing on the following foods could help prevent depression:

  • B vitamins. These nutrients are essential for a happy, healthy body, and foods rich in vitamin B12 can help balance the chemicals in the brain [1]. To get a daily dose, chow down on organ meats (such as beef liver or turkey giblets) and fortified cereals. Folate (another B vitamin) also helps produce and maintain new cells, so ward off low spirits with natural folate found in dark green leafy vegetables, dried beans, and citrus juices [1].
  • Omega-3s. Incorporating omega-3 fatty acids into a healthy diet can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety [22] [23]. Get fishing — the main sources of omega fatty acids are found in fish, such as herring, rainbow trout, salmon, and tuna. For those who aren’t fans of seafood, get a fatty acid fix from flaxseed, soybeans, walnuts, and canola oil.
  • Complex Carbohydrates. Load up on carbs! (Yep, we said it.) Carbohydrate-rich foods trigger the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which regulates mood [1]. Look for complex carbs, rather than sweets, to provide a lasting effect on brain chemistry and mood.

If serious depression is an issue, consider seeing a therapist to find a personal treatment plan. Otherwise aim for a balanced, varied diet with plenty of natural, whole foods. The health benefits of proper nutrition are just another reason to smile.

The Takeaway

 

Diets high in saturated fat and trans fats are associated with higher rates of depression. People who eat natural, whole foods like are less likely to become depressed than those who eat processed food. Depressed patients are more likely to make poorer food choices, so it’s unclear whether an unhealthy diet causes depression or vice versa. Antioxidants, folate, protein, B vitamins, and Omega-3 fatty acids may all play a role in beating the blues. Chowing on carbohydrates increases levels of serotonin, which regulates mood.

What are some foods that keep you feeling your best? Tell us in the comments below!

Works Cited

  1. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Rao, T.S., Asha, M.R., Ramesh, B.N, et al. Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College, Mysore. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2008 Apr;50(2):77-82.
  2. Coronary Health Improvement Project (CHIP) is associated with improved nutrient intake and decreased depression. Merrill, R.M., Taylor, P., Aldana, S.G. Department of Health Science, College of Health and Human Performance, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA. Nutrition, 2008 Apr;24(4):314-21.
  3. Dietary fat intake and risk of depression: the SUN Project. Sánchez-Villegas, A., Verberne, L., De Irala, J. Department of Clinical Sciences, University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain. PloS One, 2011 Jan 26;6(1):e16268.
  4. Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. Akbaraly, T.N., Brunner, E.J., Ferrie, J.E., Marmot, M.G., et al. Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London. The British Journal of Psychiatry: The Journal of Mental Science, 2009 Nov; 195(5):408-13.
  5. Health effects of trans-fatty acids: experimental and observational evidence. Mozaffarian, D., Aro, A., Willett, W.C. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009 May;63 Suppl 2:S5-21.
  6. Coronary Health Improvement Project (CHIP) is associated with improved nutrient intake and decreased depression. Merrill, R.M., Taylor, P., Aldana, S.G. Department of Health Science, College of Health and Human Performance, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA. Nutrition, 2008 Apr;24(4):314-21.
  7. Dietary fat intake and risk of depression: the SUN Project. Sánchez-Villegas, A., Verberne, L., De Irala, J. Department of Clinical Sciences, University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain. PloS One, 2011 Jan 26;6(1):e16268.
  8. Dietary fat intake and risk of depression: the SUN Project. Sánchez-Villegas, A., Verberne, L., De Irala, J. Department of Clinical Sciences, University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain. PloS One, 2011 Jan 26;6(1):e16268.
  9. Cytokines sing the blues: inflammation and the pathogenesis of depression. Raison, C.L., Capuron, L., Miller, A.H. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, 101 Woodruff Circle, Suite 4000, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. Trends in Immunology, 2006 Jan;27(1):24-31. Epub 2005 Nov 28.
  10. The cytokine hypothesis of depression: inflammation, oxidative & nitrosative stress (IO&NS) and leaky gut as new targets for adjunctive treatments in depression. Maes, M. Clinical Research Center for mental Health, Olmenlaan 9, 2610 Wilrijk, Belgium. Neuro Endocrinology Letters, 2008 Jun;29(3):287-91.
  11. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Rao, T.S., Asha, M.R., Ramesh, B.N, et al. Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College, Mysore. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2008 Apr;50(2):77-82.
  12. Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. Akbaraly, T.N., Brunner, E.J., Ferrie, J.E., Marmot, M.G., et al. Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London. The British Journal of Psychiatry: The Journal of Mental Science, 2009 Nov; 195(5):408-13.
  13. Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. Akbaraly, T.N., Brunner, E.J., Ferrie, J.E., Marmot, M.G., et al. Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London. The British Journal of Psychiatry: The Journal of Mental Science, 2009 Nov; 195(5):408-13.
  14. Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. Akbaraly, T.N., Brunner, E.J., Ferrie, J.E., Marmot, M.G., et al. Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London. The British Journal of Psychiatry: The Journal of Mental Science, 2009 Nov; 195(5):408-13.
  15. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Rao, T.S., Asha, M.R., Ramesh, B.N, et al. Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College, Mysore. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2008 Apr;50(2):77-82.
  16. Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. Akbaraly, T.N., Brunner, E.J., Ferrie, J.E., Marmot, M.G., et al. Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London. The British Journal of Psychiatry: The Journal of Mental Science, 2009 Nov; 195(5):408-13.
  17. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Rao, T.S., Asha, M.R., Ramesh, B.N, et al. Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College, Mysore. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2008 Apr;50(2):77-82.
  18. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Rao, T.S., Asha, M.R., Ramesh, B.N, et al. Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College, Mysore. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2008 Apr;50(2):77-82.
  19. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Rao, T.S., Asha, M.R., Ramesh, B.N, et al. Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College, Mysore. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2008 Apr;50(2):77-82.
  20. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Rao, T.S., Asha, M.R., Ramesh, B.N, et al. Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College, Mysore. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2008 Apr;50(2):77-82.
  21. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Rao, T.S., Asha, M.R., Ramesh, B.N, et al. Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College, Mysore. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2008 Apr;50(2):77-82.
  22. Nutrition and depression: implications for improving mental health among childbearing-aged women. Bodnar, L.M., Wisner, K.L. Department of Epidemiology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15261, USA. Biological Psychiatry, 2005 Nov 1;58(9):679-85.
  23. Omega 3 fatty acids and the brain: review of studies in depression. Sinclair, A.J., Begg, D., Mathai, M., et al. School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University, 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood, Victoria 3125, Australia. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2007;16 Suppl 1:391-7.
  24. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Rao, T.S., Asha, M.R., Ramesh, B.N, et al. Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College, Mysore. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2008 Apr;50(2):77-82.