How Food Can Affect Your Mood


Recently, I’ve been learning about the impact of diet on mood, specifically with depression. Depression is the most common mood disorder with over 17 million US adults experiencing at least one depressive episode in 20171.  Typically when one seeks help for depression, they schedule with their PCP and either are referred to behavioral health and/or prescribed a medication. Behavioral health is one way to address the underlying issue, but what about the diet? Diet is often overlooked, despite a wealth of evidence substantiating the role in treating and preventing depression. In order for our cells to produce things like serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that help us feel mentally healthy; certain nutrients have to be available and these nutrients are mostly acquired through diet. This week, I highlight the top nutrients and foods demonstrated in the scientific literature to prevent and promote recovery from depression.

There are a total of 34 known essential nutrients, and these are ‘essential’ because they must be obtained through diet; our bodies do not make them. 12 of these nutrients relate to the prevention and treatment of depression. These include: folate, iron, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C and zinc. Deficiencies in these nutrients can cause depressive symptoms and their supplemental forms are used as treatment.

Based on emerging evidence, the first nutritional guidelines to prevent depression were published this past year. They recommend traditional diets like that from the Mediterranean, Japan and Norway, with adequate omega-3 fatty acids. Traditional diets are classically abundant in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, fish, non-sugared diary and some meat. Studies show a greater than 30% reduced risk of depression with a ‘whole foods’ or ‘traditional’ diet. The western dietary pattern, high in simple carbohydrates and sugars, on the other hand, is associated with an increased depression risk.

Brain health and depression is affected by nutrition through several mechanisms. Nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, zinc and magnesium all increase the expression of Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), stimulating nerve growth and nerve cell adaptability (AKA neuroplasticity). Further, food is a determinant of inflammation, which is a major cause of depression. Lastly, the microbiome is another key player in the regulation of mood and is directly influenced by diet.  A diet high in fiber (i.e. lots of plants) provides prebiotics, supporting a robust and diverse microbiome.

Below are the top 10 foods I recommend for preventing and treating depression.  These foods score highest on the anti-depressant Food Score scale:

  1. Watercress

  2. Spinach

  3. Mustard, turnip, or beet greens

  4. Lettuces (red, green, romaine)

  5. Swiss Chard

  6. Oyster

  7. Liver and organ meats – grass fed, organic meats

  8. Kale or collards

  9. Pumpkin

  10. Cruciferous veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower

For those of us living with mental health disorders, ensuring that you are getting adequate nutrients for brain health is fundamental. Support your brain with a healthy diet.