When you feel down what do you feel like doing? Binge watching your favorite series (again)? Calling a trusted friend? Doing yoga? Grabbing some ice cream? Any of these strategies can make you feel better and temporarily boost our moods, as they often do.
But, what if I told you that recent studies show that eating a certain way every day (not just when we’re down or stressed) can reduce your risk for getting depression in the first place? What if new clinical trials showed that this can even help elevate bad moods after they’ve started? Yes, after! Would you want to know which foods are considered to be “mood foods”?
If your answer is a resounding “yes,” let’s take a short trip through the new and intriguing field of “nutritional psychiatry.”
There is one dietary pattern that is consistently linked to lower rates of depression. It’s also linked to lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. That diet? The Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet is based on what people traditionally ate in that area of Europe. It’s rich in fruits, vegetables, olives and olive oil, whole grains, nuts, and lean proteins such as chicken or fish. It’s also low in red meat and dairy.
Eating a Mediterranean-style diet may do more than protect your mental health over the long run—it may even help to improve symptoms of depression after they’ve started. Exciting new research from the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia recently tested this theory in a clinical trial.
The SMILES (Supporting the Modification of lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States) trial recruited participants with depression and randomly split them into two groups. One group (the “Diet” group) received a dietary intervention that included several meetings with a dietitian for education, support, and nutritional counseling. This group was given guidelines to eat a modified Mediterranean-style diet for 12 weeks. The other group (the “Befriending” group) had the same number of meetings as the “Diet group,” but instead of a dietitian and nutrition advice, they met with a neutral new “friend.”
After 12 weeks, the researchers compared each person’s symptoms to how they were feeling at the beginning of the trial. They also compared these two groups to each other. It turns out that the people who participated in the Diet group (the ones who changed their diet to be more like the Mediterranean diet) had a greater reduction in their depression symptoms than those in the Befriending group. Participants who improved their diet the most experienced the greatest mental health benefit. In fact, 32 percent of the people in the diet group went into remission, compared to 8 percent of those in the befriending group.
What does this all mean? Eating a Mediterranean-style diet reduces your risk for depression before you ever experience it. Plus, if you do experience symptoms of depression, changing your diet can help improve symptoms of depression after 12 weeks of a more Mediterranean-style diet.
Food is often referred to as “fuel,” but in fact, what and how you eat has a profound effect on almost every aspect of your physical and mental health. On a basic level, calories provide fuel to give us energy to move, think, digest, breathe, etc. Essential vitamins and minerals from food are used in complex reactions needed to make necessary compounds such as neurotransmitters (chemical messengers for our brains and nerve cells to transmit messages to each other). Fiber and some starches feed your friendly gut microbes that have their own nervous system, communicate with the brain, and make their own neurotransmitters.
When it comes to the nutrients themselves, twelve are considered to have “antidepressant” roles in the body. They include folate, iron, omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C, and zinc. Eating more foods that are rich in these nutrients can help your mental health.
Neurotransmitters have very important roles when it comes to moods. You may have heard of serotonin who’s links to poor moods and depression have been well-studied. In fact, several medications prescribed for depression try to improve levels of serotonin. What does this have to do with nutrition and food? In addition to some essential roles nutrients play in helping your body produce serotonin, many common side effects from these medications are felt in the GI tract such as nausea, diarrhea, or even weight gain. Recent evidence shows that a whopping 90 percent of serotonin receptors in the body are located—not in the brain—but, in the digestive system.
Inflammation is yet another connection between what we eat and our mental health. People with depression tend to have higher levels of inflammation. Those who eat a more anti-inflammatory plant-based diet and avoid sugary and processed foods have reduced inflammation and reduced risks for depression.
These examples illustrate the many complex interconnections between what we eat and how it can influence the way we feel (emotionally).
The Mediterranean diet and the modified version tested in the SMILES trial that successfully reduced participants’ depression symptoms is based on a foundation of whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. These plants are the top mood foods, according to this clinical research. After these, you can include some dairy, nuts, and olive oil every day. This diet also recommends drinking plenty of water, daily exercise, and enjoying meals with others. These are the daily nutrition and lifestyle recommendations for nutritional psychiatry.
In addition to these daily guidelines, other nutritious foods can be enjoyed several times per week: legumes, red meat, fish, poultry, and eggs. The modified Mediterranean diet even allows up to three servings of “extras” every week so you don’t have to feel deprived/still enjoy your favorite snacks.
Here are some strategies on how to put these nutritional psychiatry guidelines to work for you.
Enjoy more fruits and vegetables
- Whether they’re fresh or frozen, more fruits and vegetables is an important step toward better physical and mental health.
- Add a range of colorful plants to your diet (spinach and other greens, peppers, cauliflower, pumpkin, peppers, lemon).
- Choose unsweetened fruits and vegetables over juices.
Eat enough fiber
- In addition to fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes are high in fiber.
Get some fermented and probiotic-rich foods
- Examples of fermented foods include plain yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, kimchi, etc.
- When shopping, look for ones in the refrigerator section (not on the shelves at room temperature), as refrigerated ones are more likely to still contain live active cultures.
Cut down on sugar
- To reduce sugar intake, try using less and substituting with berries or cinnamon.
Reach for better proteins
- Choose seafood (salmon, oysters, mussels) and lean poultry over red meat.
Avoid pro-inflammatory foods as often as you can
- Highly processed foods that are high in trans fat, saturated fat, refined flours, and sugar are linked to higher levels of inflammation.
Use a meal planner from our services to create an anti-inflammatory meal pattern for your whole family.
The connections between what you eat and how you feel keep getting stronger. New research has found that a Mediterranean-style diet can reduce your risk of developing depression and can even help to alleviate some symptoms of mild to moderate depression. This includes a focus on eating more whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, with some dairy, nuts, and olive oil every day.
Benefits go beyond better moods and can also reduce your risks for heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
If you’d like some motivation and see how simple and delicious this can be, I’d encourage you to try recipes from my Fight Inflammation meal plan.
For a plan to help you enjoy more of these mood foods, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist who can provide personalized research-based nutrition advice for your health, lifestyle, and goals. I can help. Here is my link to book a chat about meeting your dietary needs.
If you are experiencing severe depression or other mental health issues, you may need additional help beyond food, so see your licensed healthcare provider.
Want to learn how you can use nutrition for mental health? Need a plan and delicious recipes to get more healthful plants, proteins, and fats into your diet? Are you looking for ways to incorporate more mood foods into your day? Book an appointment with me to see if my services can help you.
Food and Mood Centre. (n.d.). The SMILEs trial. Retrieved from https://foodandmoodcentre.com.au/smiles-trial/
Harvard Health. (2018, February 22). Diet and depression. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/diet-and-depression-2018022213309
Harvard Health. (2018, June). Food and mood: Is there a connection? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/food-and-mood-is-there-a-connection
Harvard Health. (2019, March 27). Gut feelings: How food affects your mood. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/gut-feelings-how-food-affects-your-mood-2018120715548
Harvard Health. (2020, April 7). Eating during COVID-19: Improve your mood and lower stress. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/eating-during-covid-19-improve-your-mood-and-lower-stress-2020040719409
LaChance, L. R., & Ramsey, D. (2018). Antidepressant foods: An evidence-based nutrient profiling system for depression. World journal of psychiatry, 8(3), 97–104. https://doi.org/10.5498/wjp.v8.i3.97
Mayo Clinic. (2018, November 17). Antidepressants and weight gain: What causes it? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/antidepressants-and-weight-gain/faq-20058127
Medscape. (2018, September 28). More Evidence Links Mediterranean Diet to Less Depression. Retrieved from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/902685
Medscape. (2019, May 21). Mediterranean Diet May Keep Late-Life Depression at Bay. Retrieved from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/913284