Depression and Diet: Can Food Choices Affect Your Symptoms?

If you have depression, your symptoms can make it harder to make healthy food choices. You may have also heard that certain foods, nutrients, or diets could improve your depression. This article breaks down the relationship between depression and diet. Read on for some practical healthy eating tips to help you feel better.

Common depression symptoms

People experience depression differently. Yet, some common signs and symptoms of depression include:

  • lack of interest in activities that you enjoy
  • feeling hopeless
  • irritability and/or mood swings
  • fatigue
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • changes in appetite
  • problems with concentration, memory, and/or decision-making

Even if you feel hopeless, there are steps you can take to improve your depression symptoms. Care teams at Cerebral offer comprehensive support for your mental and physical health. Therapy, counseling, medication, and lifestyle support can all make a difference in your symptoms.

The relationship between depression and nutrition

Nutrition and mental health are closely related. Your mental health can affect your eating habits, and the foods you eat can affect your mental health. 

When you are feeling depressed, you may be less likely to choose nutritious foods. Depression symptoms like fatigue, apathy, and trouble concentrating can make it difficult to plan and prepare healthy meals. Changes in your mood and appetite can also affect the types of foods you crave.

Some studies link depression to eating a low-quality diet. However, these results aren’t consistent across all populations and studies. Your mental health is affected by many factors, not just nutrition. These factors include genetics, habits, and social determinants of health.

In other words, there is a relationship between depression and nutrition, but it isn’t clear-cut. Eating a low-quality diet won’t cause or treat depression on its own. But, improving your eating habits is one important factor for improving your quality of life.

Can antidepressants affect your eating habits?

If you take medication for depression, you may have side effects related to your weight, appetite, digestion, and energy levels. The side effects will depend on the type of medication and your response to the medication. 

Some common medications for depression and general nutrition-related effects are:

SSRIs (Prozac, Paxil)

Symptoms may include:

  • nausea
  • constipation
  • indigestion
  • weight changes

NDRIs (Wellbutrin) 

Symptoms may include:

  • nausea
  • constipation
  • drowsiness
  • dry mouth
  • weight loss

Depending on your side effects, the following nutrition tips can help you feel better:

Nausea

  • Try smaller, more-frequent meals instead of large meals.
  • Include a favorite food with your meals or snacks.

Dry mouth

  • Include cold foods and ice chips.
  • Limit salty and spicy foods or chase them with water.

Weight changes

  • Aim for balanced meals. Fill half of your plate with colorful vegetables. Include a source of protein to keep you full. Then, don't forget a nutritious carbohydrate. These include brown rice, whole grain pasta, and potatoes.
  • Strive for healthy movement. Include physical activity that you enjoy on most days.

Digestive problems

  • Limit any foods that are triggers for your problem.
  • Include water and fiber-rich foods with each meal.

Can food affect your depression?

More research is needed to determine exactly how your diet affects your depression symptoms. 

Here is what researchers currently know:

Diets that include plenty of fruit, vegetables, fish, olive oil, and antioxidants, and low-fat dairy have been linked to lower depression risk.

Diets that include few fruits and vegetables, but lots of animal products and refined carbohydrates have been linked to a higher risk of depression.

If you have depression, an overall balanced and nutritious diet should be your first step. Then, focus on getting a handful of key nutrients for depression. Almost every food you eat includes a combination of nutrients, so it is difficult to determine if one specific nutrient makes a difference for conditions like depression.

Foods and nutrients for depression

Disclaimer: Talk to your medical provider before starting a dietary supplement, especially if you’re on medications.

Zinc, folate, and magnesium

A higher intake of zinc, folate, and magnesium has been associated with a reduced risk of depression. This may be due to the important role that all of these nutrients play in brain health.

Zinc sources include: 

  • oysters
  • beef
  • crab
  • pork
  • beans 
  • fortified breakfast cereal
  • chicken
  • pumpkin seeds

Folate sources include: 

  • spinach
  • fortified breakfast cereal
  • rice
  • asparagus
  • brussels sprouts
  • avocado
  • broccoli

Magnesium sources include: 

  • pumpkin seeds
  • chia seeds
  • almonds
  • spinach
  • cashews
  • peanuts
  • soymilk
  • edamame
  • potato
  • brown rice

Antioxidants

Some studies show that people with depression have higher levels of inflammation in their bodies. Chronic inflammation can affect how many of your body’s systems function, including your brain. One way to reduce inflammation in your body is to eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Antioxidants are one of the key parts of this diet type.

Antioxidant sources include: 

  • berries
  • leafy green vegetables
  • legumes
  • dark chocolate
  • green tea

Omega-3’s

Omega-3's have anti-inflammatory properties and special functions in the brain. For these reasons, researchers are working to determine how supplementing with omega-3’s affects people with depression.

Omega-3 sources include: 

  • fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies
  • walnuts
  • flaxseeds
  • seaweed
  • algae

Probiotics and prebiotic fiber

The gut-brain connection is a relatively new area of research. The bacteria that live in your digestive system send signals to other areas of your body, including your brain. There is a lot that is still unknown about this “gut microbiome,” but researchers think that keeping your gut bacteria healthy can keep the rest of you healthy too. 

Probiotics (foods that contain live bacteria) and prebiotics (food for our gut bacteria) are important for a healthy gut. Some studies suggest that taking probiotics can help with depression. However, more research is needed to confirm these findings and determine the right dose and strain of probiotics.

Probiotic sources include: 

  • yogurt
  • miso
  • tempeh
  • sauerkraut
  • tofu

Prebiotic fiber sources include: 

  • apples 
  • bananas 
  • leeks
  • artichoke
  • garlic
  • onions
  • asparagus
  • oats

If you’re curious about your nutrition, diet, weight, and depression, take our free assessment to measure your symptoms.

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Expert Tips

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  • If you are in emotional distress, here are some resources for immediate help:

  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline:
    Call 1-800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line:
    Text Home to 741-741
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