Are Depression and Poor Diet Related?

Can a poor diet increase your risk of depression? Learn how depression affects your eating habits and what exactly you can do to start making healthier choices.
Are Depression and Poor Diet Related?

Last update: 15 April, 2021

Depression and poor diet are related. According to studies, people who eat a poor-quality diet are likely to report symptoms of depression. A poor diet is high in processed meats, chocolate, sweet desserts, fried foods, refined cereals, and high-fat dairy products. On the other hand, people who eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and fish are less likely to be depressed.

Likewise, these results are in line with other studies that prove that healthy diets help protect against disease. For example, studies suggest that people following a Mediterranean diet have lower rates of depression, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. This diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and fish and limits meat and dairy. Sadly, when struggling with depression, people’s eating habits suffer. 

Some people overeat and gain weight, as they turn to food to lift their mood. For instance, others feel too exhausted to prepare balanced meals or simply lose their appetite. “Whether you’re overeating or not eating enough, you may be using food to feel better or to cope with difficult feelings,” says Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. 

People often get trapped in a cycle of feeling hopeless about life. Likewise, their poor diet often traps them, enabling depression. It’s important to connect with other people so you don’t become too isolated. Talking with friends and a therapist offers support, helping you break out of that cycle.

Today, we’ll discuss common ways clinical depression can impact your eating patterns. Most importantly, we’ll also discuss the relationship between poor diet and emotional well-being. Lastly, we’ll also share some tips on how to start making healthier choices with the help of your therapist. 

3 common ways depression impacts your diet

As we mentioned above, people suffering from clinical depression have a poor diet. Check out the food traps you need to avoid:

Using food for comfort

“People with depression often use food to self-medicate,” says famous psychotherapist Jean Fain. They eat to improve or avoid negative or uncomfortable feelings, like sadness, shame, and self-loathing. When depressed, others crave carbohydrates or comfort foods like cake. 

Why? Foods high in carbs and sugar boost serotonin levels, a chemical elevating mood. In the short term, eating sugary and fatty foods may make you feel calmer and cared for. But, in the long term, a comfort food diet leads to weight gain and diabetes.

Not eating enough

Many people have a poor diet when their appetite decreases as they feel low. In some cases, they end up unintentionally losing weight. “They have less desire for food and they start skipping meals. Often, they even sleep through meals,” says Nolan, a New York dietitian. 

You’ll feel like you don’t have the motivation to eat when you’re depressed. Also, stress reduces your appetite. In other words, food isn’t as appealing when you’re anxious or feel hopeless. But not eating enough makes you more irritable, worsening depression. 

Eating whatever is available

Shopping for and preparing healthy meals can seem daunting when you’re depressed and lacking energy. As a result, you may reach for foods that are convenient but that aren’t particularly nutritious. Most importantly, you may not get enough variety in your diet.

“Depressed people wind up eating fast food or whatever they have in their kitchen – such as their last box of cookies,” says Varma, an NYC psychiatrist. Likewise, it’s easy for depressed people to get into a rut, always eating the same foods. 

Poor diet and emotional well-being

Diet is such an important component of mental health that it inspired an entire field of medicine called nutritional psychiatry. Mind-body medicine specialist Eva Selhub, MD, wrote a superb summary of what exactly nutritional psychiatry is. In addition, this wonderful piece also discusses what nutritional psychiatry means for you. 

What it boils down to is that what we eat matters for every aspect of our health, but especially our mental health. As we mentioned above, several recent research analyses were looking for a link between poor diet and depression. To sum it up, these multiple studies support that there’s a link between what you eat and your risk of depression, specifically.

One analysis concluded that “A dietary pattern characterized by a high intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy, and antioxidants and low intakes of animal foods was apparently associated with a decreased risk of depression”. Contrarily, a diet with high consumption of red, processed meat, refined grains, sweets, and high-fat dairy products boosts depression.

Similarly, a diet rich in butter, potatoes, high-fat gravy, with low intakes of fruits and vegetables enables depression. So which comes first, poor diet or depression? One could argue that, well, being depressed makes us more likely to eat unhealthy foods. This is true, so we should ask what came first, the diet or the depression? Fortunately, researchers also addressed this question.

For instance, another large analysis looked only at prospective studies, meaning that they looked at baseline diet and then calculated the risk of study volunteers going on to develop depression. According to research, a healthy diet means a significantly lower risk of developing depressive symptoms. For example, the aforementioned Mediterranean diet. 

Must-follow strategies

Do you want your depression to improve? Check out these must-follow strategies to help you eat healthier:

  • Soothe your senses. Try to treat your spirit, mind, and body, besides food. Comfort your body with a warm bath or wrap yourself in a soft blanket. If you like tea, make your favorite blend. Lastly, consider going to a spa and get an extraordinarily reviving massage. 
  • Tune in to your hunger. When you think you feel hungry, pause and ask yourself, Am I really hungry or am I feeling something else? In other words, you may think what you’re craving is a cookie or chips. But you may truly crave a heart-to-heart talk with a friend or a loved one.
  • Eat a varied diet. Nutritional deficiencies worsen depression. Thus, focus on eating a variety of foods, including whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products. See a nutritionist who creates simple, balanced meal plans for you.
  • Boost your energy. Seek energy-boosting activities like going for a walk, playing with your dog, or listening to music. By doing something that brightens your outlook, improving your mood, you won’t overeat. Above all, you’ll avoid a poor diet.
  • Get help. Experts say you should seek treatment for your depression before you change your eating habits. For example, attempting to go on a diet is frustrating and counterproductive if the depression hasn’t been addressed first. Contrarily, it’s imperative to see a mental health professional. 

So can a junk food diet increase your risk of depression? As you can see, we need more research on the connection between depression and poor diet. In the meantime, follow these strategies. It’s also wise to cut back on the less nutritious options and make healthier choices.

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