eating for mental health

Eating for depression and anxiety: How you can eat better and feel better

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.

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anxiety, anti anxiety diet, eating for mental health

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  I became more withdrawn (I was already a shy kid to begin with), and I remember acting out more at home.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 moderation

Healthline article- These Women Treated Their Anxiety and Depression with Food. Here’s What They Ate.
mediterranean diet, mediterranean cookbook, eating for depression and anxiety

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. 

Download this FREE handy PDF here!

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:

Effects of sugar intake

Heart healthy diets and depression

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.

sugar detox, eating for 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

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).

Complex carbs

“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

Proteins

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.

Eating for mental health really can benefit you, so give it a try!


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Related posts for eating for mental health:

What Self Care Really Is and How it Can Totally Change your Life- Hint: It’s Not a Spa Day

How to get fit: 5 tips for exercise when it is the last thing on your mind

Tips for Anxiety: 9 Simple Ways to Find Hope in a Mental Health Crisis

Ideas for Self Care: 11 Easy Ways to Start Feeling Better Fast

105 thoughts on “Eating for depression and anxiety: How you can eat better and feel better”

  1. This is such an insightful post. I completely agree that food plays a significant role in shaping our mental health. Making healthy food choices, as mentioned by you( good protein intake, reducing sugar, consuming sources of antioxidants, and vitamins) create a path to a better mental health. Thanks for sharing how the choice food affects the serotonin levels inside us.

  2. This is an amazing post. I struggle a lot with anxiety, and I someone who both eat their feelings and would like to lose weight, this is very difficult. I’ve gained some weight due to anxiety, and I can’t seem to lose it, it can get pretty discouraging sometimes. Thank you for sharing, I know what to eat to make my body feel better now !

  3. Great information and very interesting post. I’m a fan of chicken, turkey, and eggs for protein. Sourdough bread for carbs. And try to limit sweets. I also think it’s great mentally to look forward to a nice balanced meal. Thanks for this,

  4. Great information! I got better from mild depression and anxiety and diet was important in that change. I think ditching hormonal contraceptives and caffeine is also the way to go 😉 caffeine always makes me feel anxious.

  5. I’ve been through a deep depression. I agree with you, taking care of our body through healthy food and exercise will definitely help!

  6. It is really crazy how our bodies can react to stress. Eating while I am down is something I have always done

  7. I honestly find it difficult to have or enjoy a good meal. I kept on thinking or maybe being anxious of the weeks being inside the house.

    1. Yeah, I can understand that! It’s hard to enjoy it when you’re not in the right frame of mind. Hope you feel better soon!

  8. Great info. It has been my goal to eat healthier. Lately, I find myself craving so much for veggies, nuts, strawberries and sweets. I’m trying my best to eat sweets in moderation, though. 🙂

    1. That’s great that most of the things you crave are healthy at least! Sounds like you are on the right track 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  9. I love that you tackle mental health in the respectful manner that you do. Thank you for that! The Mediterranean plan looks great! I think I will have to check it out. 🙂

  10. Years ago we tried the Mediterranean diet, and I felt pretty good. Although my dinner choices are pretty healthy, I could make better choices about snacking. I am a stress eater, and apparently, have a lot of stress in my life!

  11. These are good points. It makes sense to be able to enjoy foods instead of making ourselves unhappy by removing them, but still trying for a balanced diet.

  12. This is something that we need to keep in mind. It’s not easy to feel depression and anxiety. In fact, this can cause in a more serious situation. Thank you for sharing this blog. I will share this with my friends.

  13. I love so many things about this. I believe that mood has a lot to do with your gut/diet. I had stomach problems for 12 years and when I finally got serious about figuring it out by changing my diet I was frustrated and SAD. I hated giving up things that I thought I loved. I hated feeling like there was nothing I could eat. After a few months feeling better made it all worth it and over time I didn’t miss the things I thought I loved so much. It’s been two years now and I feel great. Nothing tastes as good as healthy feels. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. I totally agree! There is a huge link between your gut and your brain. That is a good thing to point out. Thank you!

  14. Finding a healthy balance and relationship with food is so important. It can be difficult to not let those feelings of guilt and shame creep in when it comes to certain food choices. Small changes over time will help.

    1. I agree! It’s good to start slow, and try not to let guilt be a part of your food journey. Definitely keep enjoying food! I hope these are the lessons I pass down to my girls. Thanks for reading!

  15. Very detailed blog post and information. I agree with the tip around treating yourself well. It’s important to look after yourself very well. Thanks for sharing.

  16. This was very helpful. I think I’ve heard of both of those diets before but never tried them, not on purpose anyway. Eating can definitely have a HUGE impact on your mental and physical health, but I struggle with anything I call a “diet.” I focus on exercises and clean eating as much as possible. This pandemic has made it extremely difficult to keep up with the clean eating part. For whatever reason, we’re stuck in our houses, and all of a sudden, all I wanna eat is junk food! I’m ready to stop working from home now….

    1. Yeah I hear ya. I don’t really like the concept of “dieting” so much as making positive changes. Hang in there. I hope you’re able to head back to a normal work situation soon. Thank you for reading.

  17. Ahh..giving up sugar gives me the sads too but I can see the reason why too. I appreciate your message of everything in moderation, do what works for the individual rather than a blanket recommendation in diet and restriction (which tends to result in a blow out anyway).

  18. When I went down with depression in November I really struggled, the first thing I started doing to feel better was to start eating better and working out and it really helped me start getting my mental health.

  19. I was just talking about this. I did not buy any junk food when I went to the grocery store and only bought fresh raw fruits to snack on.

  20. Very insightful article. This situation is making everyone stressful and this will really help. I cut down sugar and switched to stevia, jaggery and palm candies alternatively, I can see the difference. Thank you for sharing it in details.

  21. I find that I always feel so much better when I start eating more healthily, I think in addition to the science behind it the idea that you’re doing something good for your body can often give you a well needed boost. The only problem I find is that if I fall of the wagon for a couple of days and eat rubbish, I end up feeling quite guilty which of course isn’t the most helpful for your mental health. That’s why it’s so important to have a balance between the two – eating healthy is so important, but it’s also fine to treat yourself once in a while! Great post, thanks for sharing xx

    1. That is very true! Just the effort of trying is really beneficial. It shows your brain how easy it can be to do something good for yourself and inspires you to do more. Thanks for reading!

  22. Interesting article. I feel a lot of us are experiencing depression and anxiety with whats going on in the world today and being in the house a lot of us are baking. I learned from your article that having sugar is just making us feel worse.

    1. Yeah in moderation it is fine, but too much of it really has bad effects. I always have a sweet tooth, so I am trying to learn to at least reach for fruit sometimes instead. Thanks for reading!

  23. Pam Wattenbarger

    I’ve noticed that during this stressful time I’ve been doing a lot of stress eating to help with anxiety. I’m trying to get back to a better diet.

    1. Me too! I’m trying to eat more fruits and veggies, and less fast food/pop. Slowly but surely. Thanks for reading!

  24. Food definitely has an impact on your mental health and well being! As a personal trainer, I’m always trying to guide my clients to make healthy choices not only to feel better physically, but mentally too. It takes time to change and adapt but it’s so worth it.

  25. Fantastic post on a very important subject. Great that you give such a detailed analysis and really hope this reaches the people who NEED to read it 👍

  26. This is such an informative post! I eat quite Mediterranean and I think it has improved my mental health symptoms – as has eating a lot of fresh fruit rich with antioxidants. I do need to cut down on my sugar though as I think this could help too!

  27. It’s amazing the connection we feel between eating certain foods and our moods. I know when I eat badly, I feel so awful too. I feel so much better when I am more conscious about what I eat and it definitely helps my mood as well!

    1. For sure! I initially feel on top of the world when I eat a sleeve of oreos when I’m down but 10 minutes later, I’m like “Eww why did I do that?” LOL. It’s all about forgetting the short term pleasure in favor of long term healing. Thanks for reading!

  28. I love that you talk about your story, hypomania, sugar detox and serotonin! All good stuff. Thanks for this wonderful info and once again boosting the mental health awareness through your blog!

  29. There is a huge connection between nutrition and mental health. Omega 3s, probiotics, and Vitamin D are my go-to supplements for keeping my mental health strong and healthy.

  30. Having Celiac Disease is a cause of depression especially as we fail to absorb all our nutrients from food. The gut affects mood and mood affects how we eat and digest food. It can be a vicious cycle.
    Also – our food and digestive system completely impact our sleep patterns, especially how much deep sleep we get.
    Once I got a handle on digesting to sleep better, other things also fixed themselves!

    1. YES! Gut health is so important. We don’t like to think our bodies and minds are so linked, but they really are. Thanks for the info!

  31. Isn’t it crazy how what we put in our body can affect our moods?! I noticed a dramatic decrease in anxiety when I cut out pop and sugars. Very interesting article, thank you for sharing!

    1. No problem. It’s sooooo hard when you’re depressed. All you want is easy tasty stuff, not cooking a whole healthy meal a lot of the time. Thanks for reading!

    1. I really want to give it a try but it terrifies me lol. Maybe i’ll give it a shot for all of February after my bday (the 9th) Thanks for reading.

  32. I’m constantly trying to eat better for my mental health! I’ve suffered with a long-term on and off eating disorder (of course it’s always there in the back of my mind) and I know that when I’m eating more regular meals my mental health is SO much better!

  33. Great read with so much valuable information. I am also living with Bipolar disorder, and I have found modifying my diet very helpful. I have cut sugar from my diet and eat low carb. I have sustained this for almost a year, and I have never better (not in a mania type of way…in a balanced way!lol)

    1. lol that’s good! I am trying to balance in more fruits and veggies, myself. Good luck! Thanks for reading. Feel free to share!

  34. I so appreciate this post. I have been learning so much about foods, nutrients etc in regards to mental health. I am a believer. Being an actual doer, is another story.

    I have been really trying, but the sugar issue is the toughest one.

    Thanks for this great post!

    1. Yes, being a doer (not just a believer) is a challenge! Sugar really is a struggle. Thanks for reading! Feel free to share.

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