Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen
Considering just how many people in the world live with mental health conditions, you probably already know some of the devastating effects it can have — after all, depression alone affects over 264 million people worldwide. The truth is, while antidepressants and other medications and therapy options can be helpful — even lifesaving — many of us are unaware of how everyday lifestyle choices can have a major impact on our moods and mental health, as well.
Food, in particular, can have a surprisingly significant effect, and while medications and other conventional treatments may still be the best option in some cases, understanding the potential power of our everyday dietary choices can be an important step toward improving our overall health and emotions.
Sugar and mood
A lot has been said about the impact of sugar on our physical and mental health. And while it’s best to steer clear of the sweet stuff as much as possible, a teaspoon of sugar in your morning coffee or tea is unlikely to cause the sort of massive mood upheaval that can be so detrimental to your well-being. The real culprits in this realm are the sweeteners hiding inside processed foods, white flour (the kind in bagels, pasta, and white bread), white rice etc.
“Sugar” can actually go by a lot of different names — as many as 61, in fact! These include “sucrose,” “high-fructose corn syrup,” “barley malt,” “dextrose,” “maltose,” “rice syrup,” and more. According to one study from the Columbia University Medical Centre, researchers found that the more foods people ate that contained added sugars, refined grains, the more likely they were to develop depression. On the flip side, study subjects who ate a lot of dietary fiber, whole grains, vegetables, and non-juice fruit demonstrated a significantly decreased risk of depression.
The fact is, the Standard American Diet (often referred to as S.A.D. for a reason) is typically sky high in sugar. Studies comparing “traditional” diets, to a typical “Western” diet have shown that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those who ate traditional diets.
You don’t necessarily have to toss out every food product in your pantry that contains a single gram of sugar.The sugar I believe to be the most detrimental is the kind hidden in the form of simple carbohydrates, which are quickly processed and can leave you feeling the high of a sugar rush followed by a deep, profound low.
Fat and Mood
Fat plays an important role in mood in a few different ways. For one thing, while fat has gotten a bad rap over the years, a moderate amount of healthy fat intake can affect your mood by regulating serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters that impacts mood. Another major way fat impacts mood is through the intake and balance of omega 3 fatty acids. You’ve probably heard a fair amount about polyunsaturated fats (PUFA), a class of fats that include omega-3s and omega-6s.
Omega-3 fats are critical to human cell membranes and are important for everything from heart health to brain development and more. While omega-6 fatty acids are also essential to good health, experts believe the modern Western diet contains way more omega-6 fatty acids than we need. While the recommended dietary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is 1:1 to 4:1 or less, the Western diet tends to be between 10:1 and 50:1. This out-of-whack proportion may actually contribute to depression.
Some of the best dietary sources of omega 3s are fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds. To make sure you’re getting closer to the ideal ratio of omega 3s to omega 6s, consider lowering your intake of saturated fats in meat, whole milk products, and hydrogenated vegetable oils, while increasing the intake of those omega 3-rich foods.
Vitamins and Mood
Experts are still learning about the many different ways various vitamins can impact mood as well. Low levels of B6 (found in foods like fish, beef, poultry, potatoes, legumes, and spinach) have been linked with depression, as well as low levels of folate and B12.
B12 is found in sources like fish, mollusks (oysters, mussels, and clams), meat, and dairy products. Folate sources include dark green leafy vegetables like turnip greens, spinach( be careful not to overcook your green leafy vegetables), romaine lettuce, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli, as well as peanuts, sunflower seeds, eggs, and more.
People who don’t eat meat and/or dairy products may be at an increased risk of vitamin deficiencies, which in turn, could potentially impact mood. So if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider about taking specific supplements. Some evidence also suggests there may be a connection between vitamin D deficiency and depression. Risk factors for vitamin D deficiency include inadequate sunlight exposure, dark skin pigmentation, aging, obesity, renal or gastrointestinal dysfunctions, and the use of certain medications can also affect your vitamin D levels, so if this is a concern, talk to your healthcare provider about possible supplementation.
Research also has shown that deficiencies in zinc (found in foods like meat, shellfish, and legumes) and selenium (found in foods like Brazil nuts, tuna, and halibut) may also be tied to depression.
Alcohol and Mood
If you’re a regular drinker, it’s worth knowing that alcohol can have a significantly detrimental impact on your mood. It’s possible that this negative effect occurs because of alcohol’s link to folate deficiency, but it may also be due to alcohol’s potential ability to deplete omega 3s in nerve tissues.
The takeaway on food and mood
In the end, it’s important to understand that there is simply no one-size-fits-all model for physical or mental health — we are all unique individuals with a variety of factors influencing our well-being from all angles. And while it’s hugely important to avoid becoming fanatical about food in an effort to protect and preserve your mental health, it’s also critical to understand that your dietary choices can and do play a role in your well-being.
In some cases, you may need to work with a nutritionally-oriented physician, dietician, or nutritionist to assess your specific dietary needs and determine your deficiencies and requirements. Guidance can be a huge help, but something I wholeheartedly believe in is the practice of joyful eating in combination with conscious choice. Guilt is not an effective tool when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet. And remember, if you’re concerned about your mental health, it’s crucial to talk to a trusted healthcare provider who can help guide you.
Priti Parekh, MD
Obesity Medicine Specialist
Priti Parekh, MD, is a physician, writer, speaker, and a social media influencer who inspires health enthusiasts and people with healthy intentions to live healthier, more vibrant, and increasingly successful lives.