When we’re down and depressed, maintaining a ‘healthy’ diet can often seem overwhelming, yet another thing on the endless list of things that need to be done. Although no single food can ‘cure’ depression, eating regular meals of a varied and balanced diet can help to ease depressive symptoms and give you a much needed energy boost.
When looking into a more healthy diet, there’s no need to get caught up in the latest ‘superfood’ or ‘fad diet’, maintaining a healthy diet needn’t be complicated or overwhelmingly costly. Focus instead on regularly consuming a variety of wholesome, nutrient-rich foods from the below groups. The fresher and less processed goods are generally better for you, and although a change in diet won’t reap instant results, consistently eating good quality food will lead to an improvement in mood, energy levels, and mental function, which in turn, can help to ease depression.
Foods that help-
The British Dietetic Association recommends that to help boost energy & mood, our diets should be made up of the following types of food:
Now, by fats we don’t mean cream cakes & donuts unfortunately. We’re looking for unsaturated fats, found in foodstuffs like nuts, seeds, avocados & rapeseed and olive oils.
Alternatively, trans-fats, the fats found in cakes and biscuits and processed foods like sausages and ready meals, may in fact harm our brain function. In addition, Essential Fatty Acids (the Omega 3 oils) have been shown to improve mood and reduce depressive symptoms, the best source of Omega 3 oils are oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, pilchards and trout (frozen, tinned, and fresh are all fine) - our brains are made up of around 40% fat so be sure to aim for at least a few portions of unsaturated fat and omega 3 oils every week!
2. Wholegrains, Fruit & Veg
Food in its most natural state is better for you, things like; wholegrain cereals. Beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits & vegetables are all fantastic for us. They provide is with fibre, vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to function well. Complex carbohydrates (found in grains, oats, brown rice and certain vegetables such as squash) have been found to release serotonin in the brain, while B vitamins and zinc have been found to be particularly useful in managing depression. These vitamins and minerals are available via a range of wholefoods or foods such as marmite and fortified breakfast cereals. We should be aiming to consume at least 5 different fruits and vegetables a day to get all the vitamins and minerals we need, which can seem a little overwhelming - but remember this is a target to work towards, and that there are some ‘convenient’ options available if you don’t feel up to chopping up loads of fresh veggies, such as fruit smoothies, salads and frozen vegetables.
Protein is required by our body for maintenance, repair and growth, a lack of protein in our diets can lead to fatigue, a lack of concentration and irritability.
Also worth noting, some studies have shown that tryptophan, one of the building blocks of protein, can improve the mood of people with depression.
Most people tend to (correctly) associate animal-derived food - meat, fish, shellfish, eggs & dairy products - as protein rich; however several plant-based foods such as lentils, beans, nuts & seeds as well as some vegetables (soy beans, peas & broccoli among others) are also good sources of protein!
Iron deficiency or anaemia, can also have an effect on your mood and energy levels, so it’s important to eat foods that contain iron. While red meat is the most effective source of iron, you can also get it from plant proteins like beans and lentils as well as dried apricots and dark chocolate!
While not technically a food, water plays a huge role in our brain function. According to the European Food Safety Authority, we should be trying to drink around 2 litres of water a day. Not drinking enough water affects our concentration, our memory and learning ability; even a slight amount of dehydration can have a negative impact on our mood.
Foods That Hinder
With the good, inevitably comes the bad, certain foods can hinder your mood and we should seek to limit how much we consume due to their low nutritional content and the affects they have on our system.
Caffeine & alcohol are both dehydrating - especially so when drunk in large quantities - and can disrupt our sleep patterns. Caffeine withdrawal symptoms can make us feel irritable, low and anxious, and drinking too much can deplete our iron and calcium levels. Drinking too much alcohol comes with its own host of problems, including the depletion of B vitamins, which lead to low mood.
We should also try to limit the amount of sugar we consume, eating lots of sugar spikes our blood sugar levels, leading to feelings of fatigue and irritability when they drop. Too much sugar has also been linked to depression as the body uses up essential B vitamins to process the sugar into energy.
Despite their convenience, most processed foods (pre-prepared food in packages like ready meals or biscuits) have limited nutritional value, so eat as much fresh food as possible to supply your brain with all the nutrients needed for it to function properly. We’re not suggesting you cut these out of your diet completely, but they should be consumed in moderation alongside more brain-boosting treats.
These are some other things we can do to help maximise our wellbeing alongside maintaining a healthy diet.
While what we eat is important, when we eat is even more crucial for our wellbeing. Eating little and often is the goal here. As Lucy Jones explains. “The first thing to think about, rather than the specific foods that we should be eating, is the way we should be eating. Eating a regular meal pattern can play a big role in improving energy levels, brain function, concentration and ability to remember things.
Actually getting up and getting into a regular meal pattern through the day gives your brain a constant supply of energy from the food that you eat. We know that long periods of fasting can actually negatively affect our mood and our energy levels leaving people sort of distracted and less productive through the day”.
Although maintaining a varied diet can supply our bodies with all the goodness it needs, sometimes a nutritional supplement may be helpful, as the BDA outlines:
‘If you have not been eating well recently, or rely on ready meals and packaged foods regularly, you may be lacking certain vitamins and minerals. If you smoke or drink too much alcohol you may also need extra nutrients.’
If so, you may want to take a one-a-day complete multivitamin and mineral supplement, these contain a full range of the essential nutrients our bodies require, choose one that contains 100% of recommended daily intakes. High dose supplements (more than 100% of our RDA) are not more effective than these and often times cost more money. They may even cause an increased risk of adverse health. Vitamin A and E supplements in particular are not recommended for smokers. So it is wise to talk with your doctor regarding additional nutrient supplements.
Be good to yourself
While eating healthily can help calm depressive symptoms, making radical lifestyle changes can be daunting, especially when we’re in the depths of depression.
If reading this post has inspired you to improve your diet, remember you don’t need to overhaul everything all at once. You can start small: maybe by ensuring you eat one piece of fruit a day, and then – when that becomes a habit – introducing another.
Celebrate your successes – however small – but don’t berate yourself for ‘slip-ups’. Remember the motivation behind eating healthily is feeling good. If being mindful your diet leaves you feeling ‘bad’ or dispirited or guilty, shift your focus elsewhere: depression gives us a hard enough time as it is. Your wellbeing is what is most important.