You are what you eat

You are what you eat:

How diet can improve symptoms of depression

by Dr. Rangan Chatterjee

You are what you eat

Mental health issues are a growing problem around the world. In the UK, recent estimates suggest that 1 in 4 of us have been diagnosed with a mental illness. One of these conditions, depression, will affect 1 in 5 of us at some point in our lives.

But what does “depression” actually mean? And is there anything you can actually do about it?

There is no blood test to diagnose “depression”. It is simply a name we give to a collection of symptoms. Whilst there are many factors that can contribute to the development of “depression”, there is a very underutilised weapon in our armoury that we can use to help fight it… food. Can the food that we eat really impact the way we feel?

Well, here’s some ‘food for thought’.

We’re all familiar with the idea that food can make us feel good – in fact, many of us turn to food as a comforting tool or as a quick fix to temporarily make us feel better.

But, the foods that give us a temporary boost can often keep us stuck in a cycle of feeling high and low.

Sugar isn’t sweet for the mind

Certain foods like sugar, foods that contain sugar, or even foods that are converted quickly into sugar, such as breakfast cereal and processed bread, can literally shock and scare the body. Two to three hours after such a meal, your sugar levels can have a relative crash. People usually feel hungry at this point. However, this is not just about hunger – I am sure you have heard of the term “hangry”.

When your blood sugar crashes, your body can release its fight or flight hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. In this context, these hormones are alarm signs to your body – the foods that are “shocking” and “scaring” you. Often, many symptoms of depression can get significantly better by eating foods that keep your blood sugar stable such as high quality protein, like eggs, and healthy fats such as avocados.

Are you suffering from mood problems or are they actually symptoms secondary to a blood sugar imbalance?

Food can heal depression

A fantastic interventional study from Victoria, New Zealand in 2017 found that patients with moderate to severe depression had a statistically significant improvement in their symptoms on a modified Mediterranean diet. This diet included foods such as lean meats, seafood, nuts, seeds and plenty of fruit and vegetables.

The authors of this study conclude, “these results indicate that dietary improvement may provide an efficacious and accessible treatment strategy for the management of this highly prevalent mental disorder, the benefits of which could extend to the management of common co-morbidities.”

This study came two years after a landmark editorial in the prestigious Lancet Journal which discussed the critical role that nutrition plays in mental health disorders. It states, “although the determinants of mental health are complex, the emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a crucial factor in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders suggests that diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.”

BUT when was the last time your doctor asked you about food when you were concerned about feeling depressed? It simply does not happen enough.

“WHAT ARE YOU EATING?” is the question I ask every patient who walks through my door. For mental health, the nutrients you put in your mouth have a profound impact on your brain.

Change your habits

It is amazing what can happen if you are currently consuming a lot of beige foods – empty carbs, pizzas, doughnuts, bread etc. It can be a pretty rapid change when you move to a whole food diet containing a lot of fresh produce, oily fish, quality red meat, nuts and seeds.

I have seen some cases where fixing diet and eliminating sugar can lead to a complete resolution of depression symptoms. In other cases, it has been a significant factor in getting better.

Changes to your diet can often create a domino effect where you then start to increase your physical activity levels, which has also shown to improve mood. Plus, many of my patients, when they’ve changed their diet, have started to feel better about themselves immediately, and this has led them to want to access other therapies like counselling or CBT. In effect, diet changes can be a gateway to improving your overall wellbeing.

I discuss depression in more detail on BBC Breakfast.

My top five food tips for improving depression are:

  1. Eliminate processed foods and highly refined carbohydrates – Processed foods are basically foods in a packet with a whole barrage of names and ingredients that you don’t recognise and cannot pronounce. Highly refined carbohydrates are foods like breakfast cereals (most of them!) and processed bread. These turn to sugar in the body very quickly and can have a detrimental effect on your mood.
  2. Reduce your sugar intake – Adding sugar to food can have a negative effect on your mood. In addition, much of our sugar intake these days comes from drinks, both soft drinks and so-called healthy options such as fruit juices. Cutting out sugar can be hard at first but within weeks your taste buds will start to change. Try sticking to plain water, tea and coffee.
  3. Increase your intake of healthy natural fats – Stabilise your blood sugar by eating more eggs, avocados, olives, nuts and seeds. I even find that good quality red meat can be hugely beneficial for some people suffering from depression.
  4. Eat more seafood – Fatty fish such as wild salmon, anchovies, sardines and mackerel are brilliant sources of Omega-3 fats, which can be helpful for your brain function. You can also get Omega-3 from grass fed beef and lamb. I do find that animal sources of Omega-3 tend to be more beneficial for my patients’ moods but vegetarians and vegans can also increase their intake by eating more leafy green vegetables (e.g. kale), chia seeds, flax seeds and nuts. One of the best non-animal sources of Omega-3 fats is seaweed – if you have never tried it before, give it a try!
  5. Eat more prebiotic fibre – There are trillions of gut bugs that live inside your gut. Some scientists call these the brain’s peacekeepers. The health and composition of these bugs plays a critical role in determining your mood. The best way to increase them is to eat more plant fibre. Best sources are leeks, onions, garlic, artichokes and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower.

You have the power to improve the way you feel by controlling what you put on your plate. Use that power to enhance your mood and your lifestyle.

Have you found that certain foods affect your mood? Share with me on Facebook or Twitter.

— Dr Chatterjee

The contents of this blog are for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice of any kind. Dr.Chatterjee assumes no liability for use or interpretation of any information contained in this blog. This blog should not be an alternative to obtaining medical advice from a qualified medical practitioner.