How diet may affect depression

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (Nov. 18, 2014) — The typical American diet consists of salty, sugary and fatty foods. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an unhealthy diet may be partly responsible for depressive disorders afflicting an estimated 9 percent of the U.S. population.

However, “There is not enough proven evidence to definitely say that an unhealthy diet is a causing factor in depression,” SUNY Plattsburgh psychologist Dr. Carol Shuttleworth said.

Eating a healthy balanced diet and exercising regularly have proven effects that may be factors in improving depression in patients; “however, not significantly enough for it to become a treatment of depression,” Shuttleworth said.

Research has shown people who are depressed may have low levels of positive neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are often referred to as “feel good” brain chemicals. In fact, many medications used to treat depression specifically target raising serotonin.

To help prevent depression, focus on eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, complex carbohydrates, tryptophan, serotonin, selenium and vitamin B12, suggests SUNY Plattsburgh nutritionist Jeff Vallee.

“These help improve brain function but not directly depression,” Vallee said. “It all comes down to promoting brain function. Anything that limits serotonin [and] selenium, et cetera, could indirectly affect depression because it is decreasing things and makes an impact. It could almost act like a catalyst, speeding things up.”

Omega-3 Fatty Acids:

Omega-3 fatty acids provide many benefits, including improving learning and memory and helping to fight against depression. In recent years, researchers have noted mega-3 fatty acids also improve learning and memory in other mood disorders such as schizophrenia and dementia.

According to WebMD, “Omega-3s appear to affect neurotransmitter pathways in the brain.”

Omega-3 fatty acids can also influence mood, behavior and personality. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in: nut oil, walnuts, flax seeds, peanut butter, kiwi fruit, salmon, mackerel, sardines, algae, krill, bread, granola bars, yogurt, orange juice, milk and margarine.

Complex Carbohydrates, Tryptophan, Serotonin and Selenium:

Complex carbohydrates increase brain levels of tryptophan, the amino acid that converts to mood-calming serotonin in the brain. Complex carbohydrates break down slowly in the body and release energy–creating glucose gradually for an even mood, whereas processed carbohydrates like cake, cookies and sugary processed foods instantly spike blood sugar, leading to sugar rushes and crashes.

When you eat carbohydrates, your pancreas secretes insulin to lower blood levels of amino acids in the food but allows the relaxing amino acid tryptophan to rise and more rapidly reach the brain. Once there, tryptophan is converted to serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for communicating calm between your brain cells, and you instantly feel good.

Tryptophan can be found in complex carbohydrates. “It’s in many protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, beans and eggs,” Vallee said via email.

Complex carbohydrates can also be found in brown rice. Eating carbohydrate foods such as grains, fruits, legumes and starchy vegetables along with protein foods enables tryptophan to get into the brain.

“Selenium is a mineral that is essential to good health. Studies have reported an association between low selenium intake and poorer moods; although, evidence isn’t conclusive on whether supplementation can help. It’s found in beans, legumes, low-fat dairy, lean meats, nuts, seeds, seafood and whole grains,” Valle said.

Vitamin B12:

According to the National Institute of Health, “Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA, the genetic material in all cells.”

It’s important to consume vitamin B12 from animal sources like meat and dairy if you’re depressed. Symptoms of depression include fatigue and B12 helps counteract that. B12 can be found in beef, poultry, liver, other meats, clams, other fish, eggs, milk and other dairy products. Some breakfast cereals, nutritional yeasts and other food products are fortified with vitamin B12.

Best Foods to Beat Depression:

Keep caffeine and alcohol to a minimum, and fish at least three times a week. Whole foods and lots of fruits and vegetables are recommended to live a healthy lifestyle and indirectly preventing depression in some cases.

  • Wild salmon
  • Oatmeal
  • Edamame
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Spinach
  • Ground flax- seeds
  • Blackberries
  • Shrimp
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Watermelon
  • Chile peppers
  • Beets
  • Garlic
  • Eggs
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Fat-free milk
  • Bananas
  • Beans
  • Broccoli
  • Cocoa powder
  • Olive oil