Can Food Protect You From Depression?
Researchers examined 16 studies with nearly 46,000 participants from the United States, Australia, and Europe, ranging from ages 21 to 85.
Overall, adopting a healthier diet did seem to lead to reduced symptoms of depression (less hopelessness, trouble sleeping, disconnection from others) compared to engaging in other self-improvement activities or going about life as usual.
Including more non-processed foods, more whole foods (fruits & vegetables) is very beneficial in terms of your psychological wellbeing (particularly mood). – Joseph Firth
Food doesn’t just affect our body but also our moods and emotions.
Whole, unprocessed foods can lift our moods and protect us from depression.
Whereas too much junk food and sugar can put our mental health at risk.
Given our brains are part of our body – affected by shifts in our hormones, blood sugar levels and other biological processes – this makes sense, right?
Can Food Make You Happy?
In another study, researchers recruited 171 young adults with a diet low in fruits and vegetables (3 or fewer servings per day). The diet group that managed to add one extra serving of fruit and vegetables to their diet daily reported more energy, curiosity, creativity, motivation and felt more purposeful in their lives overall (= a greater sense of flourishing).
“The nutrients consumed in everyday diets are important for individuals’ mood” – Laura McMillan
“The accumulation of factors such as low vitality, reduced motivation and poorer socio-emotional flourishing may precipitate the development of psychological ill-being over time” – Tamlin S. Conner
Who Benefits Most?
The effect was greater in women. Besides differences in hormones and metabolism, women are statistically more likely to be depressed and hence would be expected to benefit more.
Those in the midst of a depressive episode can also greatly benefit. Researchers recruited depressed people with poor diets and assisted them in following a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet. After 12 weeks, they had reduced their depression. The more they improved their diet, the more their depression lifted.
Understanding How Food Influences Our Mental Health
On average, across 16 studies, healthier eating didn’t seem to make people less anxious. This appears to strengthens the case that food directly affects depression. If the results were simply due to people feeling proud and accomplished with their new healthy habits, you would expect them to feel better all around (including less anxious). The fact that only their symptoms of depression shifted means that something else may be happening?
Indeed, there are a variety of biological processes that seem to be both influenced by diet and involved in mental health. It’s possible that certain diets may increase inflammation and oxidative stress, and disrupt our mitochondrial function and neuron production, in ways that could put us at risk for psychological problems.
Further our gut microbiome (the colony of microorganisms in our intestines) – a contributor to mental health – may interact with many of these processes?
Also following a diet can bring us a sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy (+ weight loss) which can influence our minds too.
So Can Food Influence Our Mental Fitness?
In conclusion, food does appear to influence our wellbeing.
However, there’s no real evidence to suggest that one particular diet works better than another.
So don’t worry about having a perfectly consistent or specific diet
Instead focus on cultivating healthy but sustainable eating habits over time
Aim to get enough fruits and vegetables whilst minimizing junk foods
“Really, nutrition hasn’t changed all that much in the last couple of decades. We are still talking about eating more fruits and vegetables” – Dena Champion