If you’ve ever been feeling down and opted for a big bowl of ice cream or a little junk food binge to make you feel better, you may have been reaching for the wrong foods. While a sugary guilty pleasure may help in the moment, new research suggests that a steady diet of healthy foods may be much more effective at helping you fight off depression.
A study published recently in the World Journal of Psychiatry found that consuming a diet of nutrient-dense foods may help prevent and treat depressive disorders.
Using a U.S. Department of Agriculture database, researchers analyzed a wide selection of foods that contained at least one antidepressant nutrient. They came up with an Antidepressant Food Score (AFS), with recommendations for the nutrients and foods you should include in your diet to maintain a positive outlook.
“A healthy diet made up of wholesome fresh food will have health benefits for most people,” says Uma Naidoo, MD, director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It may lead to simply an overall feeling of improving well being.”
What’s on the List?
While the full range of vitamins, minerals and nutrients are important for a balanced, healthy diet, there are several key nutrients that are strongly associated with brain health and better moods. They include:
- Long-chain omega-3 fattyÊacids
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
Spices such as ginger and turmeric were also cited as having antidepression benefits.
Animal sources that contain some of these key nutrients include fish (snapper, salmon, tuna, and pollock), oysters, mussels, and liver. Plant-based foods packed with antidepression nutrients include spinach, romaine lettuce, mustard greens, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, pumpkin, and watercress.
“A healthy, balanced diet of whole fresh fruits, vegetables, plant-based protein, seafood and healthy-sourced meats are suggested,” Dr. Naidoo says. “The Mediterranean diet has been shown to help depression.”
Features of the Mediterranean-style eating plan include:
- Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts
- Replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil
- Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
- Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month
- Eating fish and/or poultry at least twice a week
When You’re Not Eating Right
Knowing what foods to choose and what nutrients to keep in mind when making your food selections can certainly help with your emotional and physical health. Unfortunately, people with depression, anxiety and other mental disorders tend to make unhealthy lifestyle choices.
They may be unwilling or unable to be physically active or even take their medications as prescribed. They may sleep too much or too little. Likewise, they may eat too much or too little, or choose foods of convenience rather than nutrition. All of this can lead to worsening health.
“Individuals with mental illness face an increased risk of having chronic medical conditions,” Dr. Naidoo says. “A feeling of hopelessness or lack of motivation are symptoms of depression, which may lead to poor eating habits and a lack of exercise.”
It’s Not Just What You Eat
Including more antidepression foods in your diet is only part of the solution to preventing or coping with such an emotionally challenging condition. Comprehensive treatment for depression includes much more than dietary adjustments.
“It is important to understand that nutritional psychiatry dietary changes are a complementary treatment to speaking to your doctor and following his or her recommendations about your medications and treatment,” Dr. Naidoo says. “Nutritional psychiatry recommendations are not intended to replace these guidelines, but be useful additional techniques to enhance your overall treatment.”
Other antidepression lifestyle behaviors include moderate alcohol use, no smoking, staying hydrated, getting adequate sleep and exercise, and finding ways to lower stress.