Diet can have extreme effects on mental health, and some foods even contribute to or actively inhibit conditions like depression. While research is ongoing, a growing body of evidence has found that dietary choices could improve depression symptoms and behaviors. The exact mechanisms are complex, but the general idea is not that surprising: nutritious meals result in a healthier mental state.
Around one-fourth of people with neuropsychiatric conditions like depression have increased inflammation. Many factors contribute to this symptom, including stressors like life adversities, physical inactivity, and smoking. Research shows that healthy diet patterns and certain foods have anti-inflammatory properties that could affect depression and other conditions. Polyphenols like blueberries, cocoa, and curcumin have some of the strongest anti-inflammatory effects.
Oxidative stress results from an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants. Over time, this imbalance can cause cellular injury to proteins, lipids, and even DNA. Experts believe that oxidative stress plays a significant role in the development of depression and other mental health issues. Diet can increase or diminish oxidative stress. Fruits, grains, and vegetables are excellent sources of antioxidants.
One of the fastest-growing areas of research indicates that a person’s gut microbiota can affect their cognitive function, behavior, and neuropsychiatric conditions. Because the gut microbiome is the first system to interact with food, it may also affect other causes of depression, like inflammation. Foods rich in prebiotics and probiotics appear to reduce stress-induced changes in the gut and improve depression symptoms. Fermented choices like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut are probiotic sources, while prebiotics is available in a range of fruits and vegetables, from asparagus to yams.
The HPA axis consists of the hypothalamus section of the brain and the pituitary and adrenal glands. Researchers have linked this axis to many conditions, including depression. Over 60% of people with depression show signs of an HPA issue, such as excess cortisol. Clinical trials using vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids, and polyphenol-rich foods have had promising effects on cortisol levels. Foods like pomegranates and dark chocolate could be effective options for managing HPA-related depression symptoms.
Many of the core symptoms of depression, like fatigue and memory loss, stem from mitochondrial dysfunction. A significant amount of evidence indicates that poor nutrition contributes to these issues. Some studies suggest that caloric restrictions help prevent mitochondrial dysfunction, but it is unclear how this might affect depression. In general, foods with antioxidants and polyphenols seem to have beneficial effects.
The connections between depression and obesity are complex and still not understood. People who are obese are 55% more likely to develop depression, while individuals with depression are 58% more likely to be obese. Higher levels of inflammation are also present in those with obesity, forming another link with depression. Some experts suggest that both depression and obesity result from mechanisms like HPA axis dysregulation and its effect on reward circuitry, metabolism, and dietary intake. Diets with positive effects on these mechanisms tend to be healthier and lower in calories, promising improvements for both conditions.
Various psychosocial influences can play a role in diet, obesity, and depression. For example, negative mental health stigmas or weight discrimination can increase cortisol levels. Additionally, ongoing discrimination often lowers self-esteem, worsening symptoms of depression and encouraging poor eating habits. This cycle of negativity makes it difficult to identify which is the originating trigger: diet, depression, or obesity.
Foods to Avoid
Research has recognized that a standard “western-style” diet is among the worst options for depression. These diets often contain excess saturated fats, trans fats, and refined carbohydrates that worsen inflammation. High-fat and calorie diets may also worsen symptoms of anxiety, encourage memory loss, and produce more free radicals. High salt intake may also negatively affect mental health.
An ideal diet for managing depression consists of healthy foods like fruits, grains, and vegetables, which have low-calorie counts. Research shows that foods with antioxidants and polyphenols tend to have the strongest effect on mental health. This includes berries, beans, some apples, and dark leafy greens. Prebiotics and probiotics are also promising. Some of the best prebiotics are garlic, onions, and asparagus. Fermented foods have lots of probiotics.
Even among other healthy choices, research indicates the Mediterranean diet has the strongest effect on overall health and conditions like depression. This meal plan originated in countries like Greece, Italy, and others near the Mediterranean Sea. Plant-based foods like whole grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, and herbs make up the foundation. Additionally, it replaces unhealthy fats with more nutritious options like olive oil and fatty fish.