Last Updated on December 7, 2019
Could eating a diet rich in leafy greens and seafood help manage your moods? Research points to yes. In fact, there’s a growing field of science called nutritional psychiatry that focuses on how your diet affects your mental health.
“Better diet quality, no matter which way you measure it, is associated with an approximate 30% reduction in the risk for depression,” says Felice Jacka, PhD, director of the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia and president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research. She’s also written a book on the subject, Brain Changer: The Good Mental Health Diet.
In September 2019, an analysis of 26 previous studies found that psychiatry, along with following a Mediterranean diet full of green vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, olive oil, and seafood could ease symptoms of depression. It also found that people who ate more meat, dairy, and processed foods had a higher risk of becoming depressed. Of the 26 studies included, only a handful showed no relation between diet and mental health. And a small randomized controlled trial, published a few weeks ago, found that college students with symptoms of depression saw their mood improve in just 3 weeks on a similar diet. That type of trial is considered the “gold standard” among researchers.
But before you toss your antidepressant and run to the nearest farmers market: None of this research suggests that diet alone can cure or prevent depression. The idea is that improving your diet gives you a strong foundation for healing, no matter what other treatments you may try.
Your Gut Is Your Second Brain
“You start talking about zucchini, and people think it means they should stop taking Zoloft,” says Drew Ramsey, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and founder of the Brain Food Clinic in New York City. “Because of stigma, people prefer not to be taking medication. They make this leap that everything can be changed with foods. Medication should be discussed with a professional.”
Scientists have been examining the effects of nutrients on mental health for decades, but the idea that your diet matters more is relatively new. “We know on a common-sense level that our brains need nourishment,” says Ramsey. “And we increasingly understand that the American diet is horrible for our health, and horrible for our mental health.”
He and a colleague came up with what they call the Antidepressant Food Score, based on nutrients that have antidepressant qualities. Foods that contain the highest amounts of these nutrients include bivalves like oysters and clams, as well as leafy greens like watercress and spinach. “But individual foods aren’t the intention,” Ramsey says. He also prescribes a rainbow of vegetables, seafood, nuts, seeds, beans, and fermented foods. Yes, it’s similar to the Mediterranean diet.
Jennie McCarthy, an attorney in New York, took Ramsey’s e-course “Eat to Beat Depression” 2 years ago. With a history of bipolar disorder and type 2 diabetes in her family, she wanted to do what she could to preserve her health. Since taking the course, she’s tried to follow his recommendations.
A typical day for her includes greens at all three meals; fish like salmon or cod; beans; red, orange, or yellow vegetables; fruit; nuts; plus a probiotic supplement and fish oil capsules. It’s not the easiest plan for socializing, but McCarthy knows that perfection isn’t the goal. So she’ll join friends for a night out, expecting to feel sluggish the next day -- a food hangover.
“I notice a huge difference in my energy level, and tolerance for things going on at work, when I’m on track,” McCarthy says. “This year, I haven’t had a bout of the blues, haven’t needed a mental health day. I don’t have the anger, stress, anxiety.”
So, What Should You Eat?
Whether you have depression, a family history of it, or just want to smooth out your mood swings, some evidence suggests that changing your diet can help.
If you want to make a change today, without medical supervision, Jacka and Ramsey encourage people to eat more plant-based foods in general -- leafy greens and other vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts and seeds, whole grains -- along with healthy fats, seafood, and lean animal protein. In other words, eat many of the same foods you’ll see on almost any “healthy” diet program. To support your gut health, Ramsey also recommends fermented foods like pickles and sauerkraut.
“The simple message is that a healthy diet is important for brain and mental health, just as it is for physical health,” says Jacka. “Unlike many other factors in our lives that may predispose us to depression, we have a choice over what we eat. All the evidence we have now tells us that a healthy diet can both prevent and treat depression and may be important for other aspects of brain health, such as dementia. This is true for people across the lifespan -- even very young children.”
And if you do decide to adjust your diet, you don’t have to make sweeping, extreme changes. Adding more leafy greens and seafood could make a good start. “I’ve found that eating better, even when it’s not 100% of the time, it does make a difference,” says McCarthy. “There’s a happiness factor.”