We all have experienced a boost in energy after eating a healthy breakfast, and most of us can also think of a time we felt lethargic and groggy after eating too much, but can the foods we eat also affect our moods, even if they are related to mood disorders such as depression?
The answer, according to a growing body of research, is yes—when included as part of an overall treatment plan managed by your primary care provider and mental health team.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, nutrition and overall mental well-being share a direct link.
A recent study found that young adults benefit when their lifestyles—diet, exercise, sleep habits—help to build serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals that are linked to positive mood and a sense of well-being. Poultry, lean meats and exercise are all effective ways to achieve that effect.
For adults over age 30, foods that increase antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables, have been found to have the same positive effects.
For both groups, coffee, processed foods and simple carbohydrates found in white breads and sugars tend to activate the stress response, detracting from a sense of well-being and resulting in lowered mood.
In addition, a diet high in saturated fats and refined and processed foods and low in fresh, nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and nuts has been associated with depression and anxiety.
In 2017, the “SMILES” trial was the first to look specifically at diet in people diagnosed with moderate to severe clinical depression. It was only a small group so findings are preliminary and merit further research, but the findings were significant.
Patients who consulted regularly with a clinical dietitian in addition to traditional talk therapy and antidepressant medication treatment had a 32.3 percent reduction in depression scores at the end of 12 weeks when those consultations resulted in dietary changes.
Patients who had traditional talk therapy sessions but no dietary intervention saw only an eight percent reduction in depression scores.
So what did the dietitians in the SMILES trial recommend?
- Whole grains
- Unsweetened dairy
- Raw nuts
- Red meat (up to three servings per week)
- Olive oil
And eating less:
- Refined cereals
- Fried foods
- Fast foods
- Processed meats
- Sugary drinks
Many Carilion Living readers may recognize those two lists as the recommendations and restrictions found in the Mediterranean diet. This is consistent with research that shows switching to a whole-foods-based diet has many other positive health effects—related to cardiovascular health, diabetes risk, cancer risk and more.
And as with other interventions for depression, changes to diet can result in a virtuous cycle of health improvements: Improved mood can mean increased energy, which can result in increased physical activity, which may lead to better sleep, which results in sharper mental focus, etc.
More research is needed, but the results of the SMILES study are definitely something to “smile” about.
Any significant change to your diet should be made in consultation with your primary care provider, who can advise you or refer you to a registered dietician.
For readers with a diagnosed mood disorder such as depression, it is important to note that diet should be considered in conjunction with your overall mental health treatment plan.
Angela Charlton, R.D.-N., specializes in oncology nutrition at Carilion Clinic and is a regular contributor to Carilion Living.