Have you ever given thought to how you can eat to improve mental health issues?
It might not be something that has ever crossed your mind. In fact, it wasn’t even a blip on my radar for the longest time.
TW/CW: This post is about eating for depression and anxiety, and how you can use food to nourish your body and manage some of the symptoms. If food/eating is a sensitive topic for you, proceed with caution.
What is your favorite food? Have you ever taken the time to think about whether or not it actually benefits you? Or do you mindlessly eat it as a source of comfort?
I have struggled with healthy eating for as long as I can remember. People might not know that about me at first glance. After all, I am relatively slim. I think it’s normal to assume that I’m not one to eat my feelings.
That is one of the stereotypes I hope to smash with this post. Skinny people do not always make good choices, and, conversely, people who are overweight do not always make bad choices.
My 2010s was a quest to find health and wellness for myself, and one area I really struggled in was feeding my body the right things.
So, what am I going to talk about in this post?
- My mental health journey
- Some tips for eating in a way that might minimize symptoms of depression and anxiety
- The connection between food and mental health
What this post is not going to be about?
- Shaming people for their choices
- Allegations that eating a certain way is a cure for mental illness
- Blaming those with depression and anxiety for “doing it to themselves” by not eating well.
No. I simply want to help by providing you with an alternative way to treat these illnesses. I’m not a medical professional but research resoundingly says that healthy eating can help.
Also, I am not a doctor or mental health professional. Just someone who has lived with anxiety for many years who is passionate about sharing her experiences and tips for success. If you are in crisis call your doctor, then click here for some good mental health resources.
My story with mental illness
I’ve suffered from symptoms of depression since I was about nine years old. My cousin passed away unexpectedly and it obviously affected my family in a significant way. I became more withdrawn (I was already a shy kid to begin with), and I remember acting out more at home. It was a profound loss, and I have never been the same.
As an adult, the symptoms grew worse through years of toxic situations and unhealthy choices. In college, I started to develop symptoms of hypomania. After I graduated, I got a job that became super, super toxic for me. It sent me down a spiral of interpersonal sabotage, hypomania, and depression.
Throughout those difficult years, and after a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I used various tools for managing my mental health. Some more effective, and some more healthy, than others.
I tried, exercise, prescription medication, therapy, self help books, essential oils, eating my feelings, guilting myself into eating less… I tried just about everything.
For anyone who reads this who is going through something similar, I see you. Your feelings are valid.
Let’s walk this journey together.
Eating for depression and anxiety
There are some strategies for healthy eating that you can try to minimize mental health issues. First, I want to make another couple of clarifications. I would never advocate you going off meds and trying something like this instead. I do not believe this is a substitute. Yes, it is possible that you can use alternative treatments in such a way that you become more stable and can maybe lower your dosages. But that is not my intention with this post. That is a discussion you need to have with your medical provider, if it is something you want.
Also, I’m not a massive fan of diet culture. I think it is damaging to your self-esteem, and a lot of these super restrictive diets often cause more harm than good. However, I think many diet plans have “good bones,” meaning a lot of the underlying principles can be helpful.
Here are two dieting methods that have been found to help those with depression and anxiety.
Mediterrean and DASH diets
One article talks about two different diets: The Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.
For the Mediterranean plan:
Get your starch fix with whole grains and legumes.
Fill up on plenty of fruits and veggies.
Focus on eating fatty fish, like salmon or albacore tuna, in place of red meat.
Add in healthy fats, like raw nuts and olive oil.
Enjoy sweets and wine in moderationHealthline article- These Women Treated Their Anxiety and Depression with Food. Here’s What They Ate.
I really like the concept of this one, because as the article says, it is more about adding healthy things in versus punishing yourself by taking things away. That is a much better approach, in my view, for someone who already struggles with mental health issues.
The article mentions three different studies. In one study, 166 people with depression tried this diet for a few months. At the end of it, their symptoms were improved. That’s a relatively small population sample. But I think it is promising! The second study showed a decrease in anxiety in medical students who consumed more Omega-3 fatty acids. (Again, adding in versus taking away.) The last study they mention indicates that people who follow this diet closely are 50% percent less likely to develop depression.
The DASH diet is a bit similar but its focus is removal, and one thing in particular: sugar.
Embrace whole grains, vegetables, and fruit.
Get protein from chicken, fish, and nuts.
Switch to low-fat or nonfat dairy.
Limit sweets, sugary drinks, saturated fats, and alcohol.Healthline article- These Women Treated Their Anxiety and Depression with Food. Here’s What They Ate.
The article mentions two studies that back this up, which I will link below:
Giving up sugar
I have to admit. This one gives me the sads. (Well, I have depression as a pre-existing condition, but you know what I mean.) No one “likes” the thought of giving up sugar. I’m definitely one of them, and you probably are too. There’s not many things that taste better than an ice cold soda or a cheesecake or freshly baked cookies.
But we are seeing this more and more in medical research, that regular sugar consumption has long lasting effects on our physical and mental health.
That being said, I don’t believe in super strict diets that feel like you’re living in a 19th century boarding school. Still, it is worth looking into the negative effects of sugar, and trying to possibly limit it where you can.
One woman in an article I read said that after a month of eating more leafy salads, more healthy fats, and limiting sugar, her energy and moods were much better.
So, yeah. Don’t punish yourself, but I really think it is worth a shot. The great thing about a “treatment” like this, is you can try it for a month, see if it helps, and if not, discontinue.
The connection between food and mental health
As you’ve been reading here, there is a massive connection between the foods that you eat and the way that you feel. Not just in the physical sense, but also your emotional health as well. I really learned a lot reading the Healthline article I linked above.
Did you know….?
- Certain vitamins we take in can boost serotonin production. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is key for mental health.
- Too much sugar has been found to “decrease a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is involved in the development of depression and anxiety.”
- There is also a lot of research linking out gut to our mental health.
- Eating healthy foods is a form of self-care, which is a vital part of CBT.
- Eating healthy can also give you more motivation in other areas!
Which foods are helpful?
So, what should you be eating more of? According to one article, are three important categories that you can easily work into your daily eating habits.
Antioxidants make your cells feel good. They help protect you from free radicals, which are basically things in your body that make you age faster and feel less healthy. Eat more Beta-Carotene (carrots, apricots, and broccoli, etc), Vitamin C (blueberries, oranges, and peppers), and Vitamin E (nuts and seeds, and vegetable oils).
“Carbohydrates are linked to the mood-boosting brain chemical, serotonin. Experts aren’t sure, but carb cravings sometimes may be related to low serotonin activity. Choose your carbs wisely. Limit sugary foods and opt for smart or “complex” carbs (such as whole grains) rather than simple carbs (such as cakes and cookies). Fruits, vegetables, and legumes also have healthy carbs and fiber.”Depression and Diet
Not all protein is created equal, but this article particularly recommends foods containing tryptophan, which is linked to serotonin production. For example, eating more turkey, tuna, and chicken can help your mood. Other things to try include beans, dairy products, and fish.
Treat yourself well
Everyone needs to eat healthy foods, whether they are depressed (or anxious) or not. But looking at the research, I am more convinced than ever of the link between the way I eat and the way my moods are.
You might feel hesitant to impose a strict diet on yourself, especially if you’re already depressed. I don’t blame you, and to be honest, I don’t recommend that. What I do recommend is starting slow. Spend a week writing down the things that you eat to see where you can make changes, and make it a priority to try a little bit each day. Don’t go whole-hog at the beginning. Make sure you take baby steps!
“Eating healthy food fills your body with energy and nutrients. Imagine your cells smiling back at you and saying: “Thank you!” – Karen Salmansohn
What are some of your favorite healthy foods? Do you find that they help your moods? Tell me all about it in the comments below. And please, don’t forget to share this post if you found it helpful.