Diet and depression are linked. But there are foods that scientists think you should try eating to help combat depression.
The Link between Diet and Depression
Depression affects over 300 million people worldwide, and some groups may be more at-risk than others — in the United States alone, 3.2 million of teenagers between the age of 12 and 17 experience depressive episodes. And these numbers are on the rise.
Depression is often treated using a combination of therapy and medication. But mounting scientific evidence suggests what you eat also has a huge effect on mental health. Diet may even reduce symptoms of depression — in a 2015 study, scientists advocate nutrition and diet be routinely incorporated into future psychiatric clinical practice.
According to Samantha Elkrief, a therapist and health coach, “Everyone, every medical provider, should be talking about food. It is such an important part of our daily life and our health. We always want to use as many tools as possible to prevent or treat symptoms.”
Her words jibe with the findings of a comprehensive 2019 analysis of 15 studies, including more than 45,000 participants. Together, the research suggest that diet does reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety. But what foods actually make those changes happen?
Positive changes to a diet can include consuming more foods with high nutrient counts, such as fruit and vegetables, fish, and whole grains. A study of over 10,000 Spanish students found that the Mediterranean diet (which includes vegetables, fruit and nuts, cereal, legumes, and fish) may reduce risk of depression. The Mediterranean diet may also help fight off various brain diseases. The findings were corroborated by similar studies on diets in Japan, Norway and China.
Build Your Own Antidepressant Diet
Elkrief says that “When we talk about foods for mood, we generally look at food categories and tell people to choose from within them. You don’t have to eat kale or watercress.”
But there are ways to narrow down your food list. Elkrief’s colleagues Laura LaChance and Drew Ramsey, from Columbia University, developed an antidepressant food score, published in the World Journal of Psychiatry.
They identified 12 antidepressant nutrients among 34 essential nutrients, including iron, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, potassium, selenium, vitamins A, B, C, and zinc.
Foods with the highest levels of these nutrients scored highest on the antidepressant food score.
Below is a list of the top 44, according to whether they are plant-based or animal-based, with the percentage of Antidepressant Nutrient content per 100 g serving. Try adding these foods to your diet to combat depression.
Antidepressant Animal Foods
- Oyster: 56 percent
- Liver and organ meats (spleen, kidneys, or heart): 18-38 percent
- Poultry giblets: 31 percent
- Clam: 30 percent
- Mussels: 28 percent
- Octopus: 27 percent
- Crab: 24 percent
- Goat: 23 percent
- Tuna: 15-21 percent
- Smelt: 20 percent
- Fish roe: 19 percent
- Bluefish: 19 percent
- Wolffish: 19 percent
- Pollock: 18 percent
- Lobster: 17 percent
- Rainbow trout: 16-17 percent
- Snail or whelk: 16 percent
- Spot fish: 16 percent
- Salmon: 10-16 percent
- Herring: 16 percent
- Emu: 16 percent
- Snapper: 16 percent
Antidepressant Plant Foods
- Watercress: 127 percent
- Spinach: 97 percent
- Mustard, turnip, or beet greens: 76-93 percent
- Lettuces (red, green, romaine): 74-99 percent
- Swiss chard: 90 percent
- Fresh herbs (cilantro, basil, or parsley): 73-75 percent
- Chicory greens: 74 percent
- Pummelo: 69 percent
- Peppers (bell, serrano, or jalapeno): 39-56 percent
- Kale or collards: 48-62 percent
- Pumpkin: 46 percent
- Dandelion greens: 43 percent
- Cauliflower: 41-42 percent
- Kohlrabi: 41 percent
- Red cabbage: 41 percent
- Broccoli: 41 percent
- Brussels sprouts: 35 percent
- Acerola: 34 percent
- Butternut squash: 34 percent
- Papaya: 31 percent
- Lemon: 31 percent
- Strawberry: 31 percent
Probiotics, Prebiotics and Depression
These nutrient-filled foods may also positively affect the flora in the gut, known as the microbiome. The evidence is growing that it is at least playing some role in one’s quality of life, mood, cognition, and, perhaps, depression.
Recent research suggests probiotics, which can boost gut bacteria health, may also alleviate depressive symptoms. A review published in the Annals of General Psychiatry in 2017 identified ten studies suggesting that daily intake of probiotics improves mood, anxiety, and cognitive symptoms.
Probiotic foods include fermented vegetables (think pickles, kimchi, and kombucha) to promote these bacteria to your gut.
Prebiotic foods, foods that contain elements that help foster probiotic bacteria, may also help. Onions, asparagus, and leeks all fit the bill
But more research is needed before jumping to strong conclusions about diet and depression. Scientists don’t know, for example, why specific foods are linked to certain mental health conditions, and not others, or what drives the link.
Ultimately, the evidence suggests that changing up what you eat may be just as good for your brain as your body.Click here to read about diet and depression