Getting Started: Eating Right for Depression

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 06, 2010
3 min read

If you’re feeling depressed, what you eat can affect your mood and your health. “A healthy diet is one of the most important facets in treating depression,” says Rosa Schnyer, DAOM, LAc, clinical assistant professor at the University of Texas College of Pharmacy in Austin. “If your body isn’t getting the nutrients it needs, then it’s likely your brain isn’t getting the nutrients that it needs to function properly.”

Here are eight steps you can take to eat right for depression:

  • Share a meal. If you’re feeling depressed, you may not feel like eating at all. But having a friend or family member help you cook and share a meal may help improve your mood -- and help you eat better. Enlist their help for those times when you need some help.
  • Choose your food wisely. “The best diet for depression is the same diet that’s good for the rest of your body,” says Schnyer. This includes plenty of whole foods, such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains as well as lean meats and low-fat dairy products. “These foods are more likely to keep your mood stable than processed foods and foods with added sugar,” says Schnyer.
  • Avoid alcohol. “Many depressed people use alcohol to help them forget about their problems and feel better,” says Eric Endlich, PhD, a Boston-based clinical psychologist. “But alcohol is a depressant and will only make depression worse in the long run.”
  • Eliminate added sugar and caffeine from your diet. Foods with added sugar are more likely to make your blood sugar rise and fall during the day, leading to mood swings. And caffeine can make you feel anxious or nervous. “Try eliminating caffeine and sugar from your diet for two weeks,” suggests Larry Christensen, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. “For some people, this change alone will help alleviate depression.” If you don’t notice a difference after a few weeks, you can add a little sugar or caffeine back into your diet, but try not to go overboard. Even if your depression isn’t affected by sugar or caffeine, too much of either in your diet isn’t good for your overall health.
  • Try supplementing your diet. Getting enough vitamins and minerals is important for everyone. But if you have depression, some nutrients may be especially beneficial. Researchers have found that omega-3 fatty acids, folate, and vitamin B12 may help fight depression -- and a deficiency of these nutrients may be a risk factor for depression. You can try boosting your diet with foods rich in these nutrients or take a supplement. Omega-3 fatty acids are mostly found in fatty fish, such as salmon, albacore tuna, lake trout, and mackerel. They are also found in tofu, soybeans, canola oil, walnuts, and flaxseed. You can find folate in various beans, green vegetables, beef liver, orange juice, and fortified cereals. Vitamin B12 is found mostly in animal products, such as meats, fish, milk, and eggs.
  • Keep a food journal. Different foods and combinations of foods affect people differently. Record everything you eat and drink each day and keep track of your moods. If you notice that a certain food seems to affect your mood, try cutting it out of your diet for a few weeks and see if you feel better.
  • Eat regular meals. Try to have three meals each day at around the same time of day. Or, if you prefer, eat five smaller meals throughout the day. Having regular meals will keep your blood sugar stable and help prevent mood swings.
  • Plan healthy snacks. Keep your kitchen stocked with healthy snacks, such as fruits, nuts, yogurt, carrot sticks, hummus, and whole-wheat crackers. This way you’ll have something healthy to eat if you get a craving in between meals.