Foods that Fight Depression

New research into the links between diet and depression yields good advice for eating foods that fight depression.

| May/June 2014

  • Woman Washing Carrots for Healthier Eating
    Research shows that eating a healthy diet can decrease risk of developing clinical depression.
    Photo by StockFood

  • Woman Washing Carrots for Healthier Eating

Did you know that how we eat can have long-term effects on how we feel? When having a bad day, it’s easy to turn to junk food for comfort, but the evidence suggests that we feel better when sticking to a long-term plan of healthy eating. In fact, doing so can decrease the risk of developing clinical depression.

New evidence for this idea comes from a recent study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, which found correlations between an inflammatory diet pattern and a higher risk of depression—up to 41 percent!

It’s good news that dietary changes could help prevent depression because this health issue affects millions of people: one in 10 U.S. adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The numbers are even higher for women. Some estimates place a woman’s lifetime risk for experiencing depression as high as one in five.

According to this study, people benefit from eating more foods that prevent inflammation (such as olive oil), and fewer foods that cause it (such as white flour). For a complete list of foods that fight depression, see the two lists later in this article.

Diet and Depression: The Anti-Inflammatory Diet

If you haven’t heard much yet about inflammation as a health problem, that’s probably about to change (in fact, we are addressing this major health concern in our next issue). Recent research has linked chronic, low-level inflammation to a wide variety of health problems including not only depression, but also heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and more.

This type of inflammation is caused by our immune systems reacting to various stresses; while some inflammation helps the body fight disease, excessive inflammation can cause problems, and a poor diet contributes to the problem.

Not surprisingly, there’s now a growing amount of information being published about anti-inflammatory diets. Go online and you can read about it from sources as various as Dr. Weil, WebMD and the Mayo Clinic. There’s even an Anti-Inflammation Diet for Dummies book.

But this isn’t just another trendy diet. One reason this recent study is worthy of our attention is that it’s rooted in some very solid science.

Looking at the Big Picture

This research is particularly valuable because, unlike many other nutritional studies, it analyzes real people’s overall eating habits rather than trying to draw conclusions from chemicals present in individual foods, says Michel Lucas, lead author of the study and a visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. “The biggest mistake in nutrition is that we’re talking about nutrients instead of talking about food,” he says. “We don’t eat one nutrient a day; we don’t eat one food a day. Different foods correlate together.”

Another reason to pay attention is that this research comes out of a huge, long-running health study. It’s not just a handful of people being analyzed for a few weeks; this research is based on information from more than 40,000 women over 12 years. The data comes from the Nurses’ Health Study, a highly respected ongoing study supported by Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health.

So is an anti-inflammatory diet where it’s at? Should we all start following the diet outlined by this study? It’s rare that any one piece of research tells us as much as we’d like to know about what to eat. The good news is that if you’d like a little more context for this study, you can easily find it online: For much more about this research visit The Nurses’ Health Study. You can also find boiled-down nutrition guidelines from the Harvard School of Public Health in Healthy Eating Plate and Healthy Eating Pyramid.

Altogether, there’s a lot of solid advice for food choices that can increase your overall health and sense of well-being. Don’t you feel better already?

Anti-Inflammatory Foods

A recent study by scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health found these foods best for warding off depression.

Olive oil and wine: Both are shown to help prevent inflammation and are associated with a healthy diet when used in moderation. For wine, it’s likely that both the alcohol and other compounds have a positive effect.

Leafy greens and yellow vegetables: Not all vegetables are specifically anti-inflammatory, but these two categories are. Leafy greens include lettuce and spinach; the “yellow vegetable” category includes carrots, winter squash and yams.

Coffee: This study didn’t break out decaf and caffeinated coffee, but previous studies suggest that it’s only coffee with caffeine that provides benefits.

Foods that Trigger Inflammation

The same study found these foods most likely to trigger inflammation, leading to an increased risk of depression.  

Margarine: Most brands used to (and some still do) contain trans fats, which, among other serious problems, promote inflammation.

Refined grains: This category includes all kinds of foods made from white flour: white bread, English muffins, bagels, rolls, muffins and biscuits; white rice and pasta; and pancakes and waffles. Nutritionists recommend whole grains as healthier options.

Red meat: This is a major source of omega 6 fats in our diets. (Many experts recommend leaner cuts, including pastured products, as healthier options, but that was not broken down in this study.)

Soft drinks: Both sugar-sweetened and diet soft drinks are linked to inflammation. Other reasons to avoid sugary beverages: They’re linked to diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Diet soft drinks may also play a role in obesity, although the research is mixed.

Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer based in Kansas. She enjoys reading and writing about all things related to sustainable living including homesteading skills, green building and renewable energy. You can find her on .



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