Most people can make a pretty clear connection between what they eat and how they feel physically: They have more energy when they’re eating a healthy diet. Beyond that, though, new research suggests that there’s an emotional benefit too. One study found that people eating the most baked goods (cupcakes, croissants, doughnuts, etc.) and fast food (hamburgers, hotdogs and pizza) were 50 percent more likely to be depressed than people eating the least. Another study found that as consumption of fruits and vegetables goes up, rate of depression goes down.
While it’s true that depression can prompt a Ben & Jerry’s binge, the reverse is also true: a poor diet can make depression worse. Deficiencies of B12, folate, thiamin, other B vitamins and protein have been directly linked to depression. In fact, lack of energy and depression are early signs of many nutritional deficiencies.
“Diet affects your brain chemistry along the same pathways as the drugs people may take to help depression, and can help those drugs work better,” says Dr. James Greenblatt, author of The Breakthrough Depression Solution. “There is good research to show that if you get the nutrients you need for the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and epinephrine, antidepressants work better.” Eating better and lifestyle changes such as regular exercise and sleep can also keep some people from falling into depression, but if you think you are already depressed, it’s best to also see a health care professional, he advises. They can help you decide your best course of action.
Greenblatt says he sees lots of people respond better to antidepressants, and eventually, go off them, once they start making diet and lifestyle changes. Here’s what he recommends.
Make sure you are absorbing protein properly. Older people, especially, and people taking antacids may not have enough stomach acid and digestive enzymes to absorb nutrients properly, Greenblatt says. He tries to wean patients off antacids and give them supplemental digestive enzymes (such as amylase and lipase, available over-the-counter or by prescription) to improve nutrient absorption. “A test to measure blood protein level is the only way to see if you are absorbing enough of the protein you eat to boost blood levels to a normal range,” he says. Ask your doctor for a fasting plasma amino acid profile. All measures should be in a normal range. If they are not, you may have to eat more protein, take a digestive enzyme, or supplement with individual amino acids for three to six months, then re-rest.
If you don’t eat animal products, find an alternate source of B12. An important nutrient for neurotransmitter production, B12 is found only in animal foods. Some people just can’t absorb B12 and must get injections or take large-dose oral supplements. If you have symptoms of depression, and especially, if you also have fatigue or neurological problems with your feet or hands, insist that your doctor check your B12 levels. Make sure you get enough to keep your blood level in a healthy mid-range (500 ng/ml or above), Greenblatt says.
Take a vitamin D supplement. New research shows a direct link between vitamin D deficiency and risk for depression. Most people don’t get enough from the sun–and certainly not from food, even fortified foods like milk, Greenblatt says. “Everyone can supplement with 1,000-2,000 IUs of vitamin D3 during the winter, and if blood levels are low, some people can go much higher,” he says. “Testing once a year is critical, and twice a year if someone is prone to being deficient.”
Eat every four hours. Have breakfast within an hour or so of getting up, then eat about every four hours during the day, Greenblatt says. This will help to maintain normal blood sugar and a more stable mood, he says.
Include 2 to 3 oz. of protein in every meal. The amino acids in proteins are the building blocks for neurotransmitters, Greenblatt says. Animal protein also provides B12 and zinc, two nutrients essential for proper neurotransmitter production.
Choose wild-caught salmon, sardines mackerel or tuna. Studies show substantial improvement in depressive symptoms from eating omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold-water fish like mackerel, sardines, tuna and wild-caught salmon. The omega-3 fats in these fish are incorporated into the membranes of nerve cells and make the membranes more flexible, allowing cell receptor sites to work better and accept signals from neurotransmitters. Eat a 4 oz. serving of fatty fish at least twice a week, Greenblatt says. If you don’t eat fish, fish oil supplements are an acceptable alternative. Aim for about 1,500 mg a day of combined EPA/DHA.
Include nuts and seeds in your daily diet. These, too, provide important fats, along with minerals like zinc, copper and manganese. Have a handful of walnuts, almonds or sunflower seeds. Add ground flaxseed to foods. Chew on chia seeds.
Make olive oil your main cooking oil. Like fish oil, olive oil has been linked to a reduced risk for depression.
Remove trans fats entirely from your diet. Research shows that eating even small amounts of trans fats (1.5 grams a day) increases your risk for depression by about 50 percent. Fried fast foods (onion rings, chicken strips, fish and chips, hash browns, biscuits) pie crust, crackers, commercial baked goods, microwave popcorn–all can contain substantial amounts of trans fats.
Graze on greens. Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, chard and spring mix are an important source of folate, another B vitamin vital for neurotransmitter production. Aim for a minimum of 400 micrograms a day, which you can get from about eight cups of raw spinach. Fortified foods are also a good source.
Cut back on sugar, white flour and alcohol. These foods actually deplete your body of nutrients needed for proper brain chemistry. Instead, get your carbs from baked sweet potatoes or whole potatoes, whole grains like quinoa and barley, and wholegrain breads and pastas. Have fresh or dried fruit and some nuts instead of other sweets. If you find that eating even whole carbs makes you sluggish or sleepy, save them for the end of the day, when you can put their sedating effects to good use, Greenblatt suggests.
Enjoy chocolate, coffee and tea in moderation. All three contain mood-boosting biochemicals, and can provide some benefit with little risk, Greenblatt says. The trick is to limit yourself to one, one-inch square of dark chocolate and no more than about two cups of coffee or tea a day. Watch for signs of anxiety and sleep problems—if you notice these issues, cut back, Greenblatt suggests.