Too much or too little of certain foods and nutrients can spell trouble for mental health, research suggests.
For example, excessive consumption of alcohol, a central nervous system depressant, can cause depressive symptoms in heavy drinkers, according to a paper published in the March 2013 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. In a 30-year study of nearly 400 men, researchers found that nearly one-third of major de-pressive episodes in participants with problems of alcohol dependence or abuse occurred only while the participants were drinking heavily. The researchers found that heavy drinking led to depression, but not the reverse, suggesting that “the depression is very likely to disappear with abstinence,” the lead author concluded.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Consider replacing these problem foods with the healthier suggestions below to help ensure a better mood:
- Fruit punches and sodas: Replace with water or unsweetened beverages.
- Processed foods: Replace with natural foods, such as fruits, vegetables, pulses, whole grains, nuts, and fish, which are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats.
- Simple sugars: Replace with complex carbohydrates, including starchy foods such as whole-grain breads, pastas, and cereals, potatoes, brown rice, raw vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
- Caffeine: Skip the chocolate, and restrict beverages to under two cups a day, or replace with decaffeinated versions.
- Unhealthy fats: Replace trans fats and saturated fats with olive and canola oils, vegetable oils and high levels of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, avocodo, flax seeds, nuts and fish oil supplements.
“Being aware of problems associated with certain foods and beverages such as alcohol, and limiting or eliminating them from your diet may help you avoid or reduce symptoms of depression or anxiety,” says David Mischoulon, MD, PhD, Director of Research at MGH’s Depression Clinical and Research Program. “Dietary sources supply most of the nutrients the brain requires to remain healthy, function properly, and maintain a stable mood. The wrong foods can cause reactions that may intensify unwanted mood symptoms.”
Foods to Avoid
There are many possible triggers besides diet for major depressive disorder (MDD, characterized by two weeks or more of symptoms such as sadness, fatigue, hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness, disturbances of sleep and appetite, and loss of pleasure in once-enjoyable activities) and anxiety (characterized by such symptoms as extreme worry over situations and events, tension, and physical changes such as increased blood pressure). However, avoiding problem foods and drinks and adopting a diet that provides needed nutrients is one thing individuals can do to reduce physiologic factors that might aggravate depression or anxiety.
The list below covers some of the foods and beverages that are best avoided or limited because of links to nega-tive mood effects:
- Sweetened sodas and fruit drinks: A study presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in March 2013 found that individuals with a daily consumption of at least four cups or cans of soda or fruit punch per day—and especially diet versions of these beverages—had at least a 30 percent higher risk for depression compared to those who did not drink sweetened drinks.
- Processed foods: A processed food dietary pattern—high in fried foods, salt, sugar, sweet desserts, processed meats, refined flour and cereals, high-fat dairy products and unhealthy fats—is associated with greater risk for anxiety and depression. It lacks many of the nutrients essential to brain health and promotes factors that have been associated with greater risk for depression, including chronic, low-grade inflammation, and a shortage of antioxidants.
- Simple carbohydrates: Simple sugars such as table sugar, artificial sweeteners, honey, corn fructose, soda, candy and other sweets provide little in the way of fiber or nutrients. Because they are quickly absorbed by the body, they are linked to spikes in blood sugar followed by a rapid drop-off that can lead to anxiety or depression.
- Caffeine: A little caffeine from time to time in chocolate or beverages such as coffee or tea can provide stimulation, combat fatigue, and increase alertness. But excessive consumption of caffeine can interfere with healthy sleep, trigger irritability, jitteriness, and anxiety, and—when the stimulating properties of caffeine wear off—cause a post-caffeine letdown that may aggravate feelings of depression.
- Unhealthy fats: Research has found a strong association between diets high in saturated fats (found in meat and high-fat dairy foods) and trans fats (found in industrially-produced pastries and fast food) and greater risk for depression. Diets low in omega-3 fatty acids are also linked to greater risk for anxiety and depression.