It is easy to point to certain food groups and know how they’ll impact your cardiovascular health or blood pressure. It is more nebulous, however, to know how the foods we consume may or may not affect our mental health.
While scarfing down a pint of ice cream after a hard day is something most of us are familiar with, this act and other forms of stress eating probably oversimplify the less straightforward relationship our moods have with the foods we eat. Research looking more closely at how diet and depression may be linked is still largely inconclusive; however, a 2005 study in the International Study of Obesity did find some links between obesity, depression, and diet. More recently, a 2011 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women with less vitamin D in their diets had a higher risk of developing depression.
Still, scientists looking for links of specific nutrients to depression have not found any “magic bullet” that increases or decreases one’s risk for depression. Part of the issue at hand is that the causes of and associations with depression and other mood disorders are often too expansive and multifactorial to specifically tease out specific nutritional factors. Nevertheless, the very fact that mood springs from multiple factors in our lives lends itself to a multifactorial approach to dealing with it.
While still broad in its conclusions, a 2014 study in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity used data from a large observational investigation called the Nurses’ Health Study found an association between depression and a diet rich in sugary soft drinks, refined grains, and red meat. A 2018 meta-analysis in the European Journal of Nutrition also suggested that high meat consumption could be associated with developing depression. At this point, it’s important to point out that none of the studies mentioned thus far find any causation between these diets and depression. Moreover, there is no sense of the timeline of the onset of depression relative to participation in these diets. Does depression make one more susceptible to eating less healthily, or is it the other way around? There’s also the question of whether people on these diets become depressed because of the other health conditions these diets can lead to, such as diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes, which are debilitating and can lead to depression in their own rights.
That being said, there is strong evidence that a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, whole grains and lean protein like chicken and fish rather than red meat and unhealthy fats, can lower one’s risk of depression. It’s important to remember that eating the “perfect mood diet” alone obviously cannot compensate for exercising 3-4 days per week, solid sleep hygiene, strong social networks, hobbies, years of therapy and/or an appropriately dosed medication regimen. But even if diet only plays one part in how we manage our moods, it is still worth exploring further, if only for the sense of control that better knowledge of what we consume often brings.