Nutrition for Depression and Anxiety: Help Overcome it With the Power of Food

article by Nicky Hoseck
June 14, 2020
When we’re feeling sad or anxious, we’re liable to reach for a slice of chocolate cake or be tempted to drown our sorrows in craft gin and tequila. What our bodies are craving at such times is probably something more along the lines of almond milk and fruit.
More than 264 million people suffer from depression, while, in the US, nearly a third of the population is battling with anxiety. The current pandemic isn’t making things any easier which is why adopting a diet that boosts your mood is so crucial. If you’re feeling down, however, the chances are you feel more inclined to slump on the sofa with a pizza rather than start conjuring up a healthy meal based on the best nutrition for depression.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a Cordon Bleu chef to create a mood-enhancing diet that contains the best nutritional support for depression.

How Can Food Help Overcome Mental Anguish

They say we are what we eat but, unfortunately, we can’t eat sunshine and smiles. We can, however, eat in a way that reflects the link between nutrition and depression.

The Mediterranean diet, with its fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, seeds, and nuts can reduce symptoms of depression. Meanwhile, a study led by the University College London (UCL) found that:

“following the plant-rich diet was associated with a 33 percent reduced risk of depression”

Similarly, research into the DASH diet has also shown positive results in terms of providing nutritional support for depression. The DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, was designed to help people with high blood pressure but “studies are now showing that individuals who adhere to the DASH diet have lower rates of depression compared to those with diets high in saturated fats and red meats and low in fruits and vegetables”.

Unfortunately, many of us turn to the wrong foods to heighten our moods. Traditional comfort foods are high in salt, sugar, and fat and, while they give a temporary boost, the “subsequent crash is harsh”.

While some anxiety nutrition solutions require an increase in plant-based foods, Omega-3s, and antioxidants, others demand that we give up highly processed foods and those with high sugar content.

The Depression-Nutrition Connection

Which came first, the chicken or the egg, the depression, or the poor nutrition? The depression nutrition connection is complex one insofar as the two are embroiled in a cause and effect relationship.

For instance, before a depressive episode, many people experience “a dominant desire for sweet foods”. They may also skip meals and experience a lack of appetite. If you reach for a fish cake instead of a chocolate cake, however, you’ll probably feel a lot better.

So, can bad nutrition cause depression? Just as a car runs better on high-quality fuel, so your brain operates more effectively on high-quality foods. Although depression is complex and also linked to social and environmental factors, there is significant evidence to suggest that a poor diet can at least exacerbate, if not cause, depression.

Your brain health and your mood rely on neurotransmitters which “nutrients such as magnesium, essential fatty acids, and vitamin B6 and B12” all help to create. Similarly, “a deficiency in these nutrients can lead to a chemical imbalance in the brain”. In fact, nutrition can play a key role in the onset as well as the severity and duration of depression”.

Anti-Anxiety Nutrition: A Case Study

Jane Green was 14 years old when she experienced her first panic attack. Shortly afterward, her doctor diagnosed her as having an irregular thyroid which was contributing to her anxiety. Antidepressants were prescribed but, nine years later, Green was still struggling. She turned to a friend for help, asking, “Can nutrition help depression?”. Nutrition and anxiety are intertwined. Her friend, a qualified nutritionist, believed it could.

Green changed her diet, cutting out almost all sugar and replacing unhealthy takeouts with nutritional meals of salmon or homemade burgers with vegetables. It wasn’t easy but within days, Green noticed “her energy level soaring”.

Green soon stopped “getting the crazy highs and lows from sugar” and now has been free of panic attacks for months. She’s even come off the antidepressants – changes which she attributes entirely to her change in diet and lifestyle.

10 Nutritional Deficiencies That May Cause Depression

If you’re looking to adapt your diet to include nutrition to treat depression, you need to make sure you’re getting enough of the following:

1. Selenium

For people like Jane Green who have thyroid issues that exacerbate her symptoms of anxiety and depression, selenium is vital. It creates antioxidants in the body and helps to detoxify. Keep your selenium levels up and your mood will follow. Foods rich in selenium include:

  • Sunflower seeds
  • Nuts
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Seafood like oysters and clams

2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3s have lots of health benefits, not least of which is that it makes it easier for serotonin to pass messages from one brain cell to the next. Increasing omega-3s has “direct effects on serotonin levels” and helps reduce inflammation. You can get a good dose of these important fats from:

  • Fish – especially fatty, cold-water fish
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Plant oils like flaxseed and canola

3. Zinc

This is one of the most important components in tackling the link between nutrition and anxiety, with research showing that “individuals with chronic anxiety had significantly higher plasma levels of copper and very low levels of zinc”. Good sources of zinc include:

  • Spinach
  • Raisins
  • Dark chocolate
  • Meat

You can also boost your zinc levels by adding a few spices, like cumin or anise, to your meals. To only will it make them tastier, but it’s also one of the best anxiety nutrition solutions.

4. Vitamin B

A vitamin B-12 deficiency has been directly linked to symptoms of depression, like feelings of guilt and anger. While taking a vitamin supplement is one way to include this nutrition for depression in your diet, you can also get a significant boost from:

  • Eggs
  • Green vegetables
  • Bananas
  • Whole grains

5. Magnesium

Magnesium helps our bodies to relax while putting the brakes on our brains’ activities so they too can get the chance to unwind once in a while. While you can absorb magnesium by bathing in Epsom Salts, when it comes to nutrition for anxiety, the following are the top sources of magnesium:

  • Spinach and kale
  • Cashew nuts
  • Peanut butter
  • Almonds

6. Folate

Folate and folic acids are more commonly associated with a healthy pregnancy but we all need folate as it helps us produce both dopamine – aka ‘the happy hormone’ – and serotonin. Once again, green leafy vegetables are among the top sources of this mineral while high levels of folic acid can also be found in:

  • Broccoli
  • Eggs
  • Lentils
  • Beans

7. Iron

Studies suggest a link between iron deficiency and symptoms that are similar to depression,  including “a lack of appetite, irritability… and mood swings”. Low iron levels may also cause panic attacks like Jane Green experienced. To keep your iron levels topped up you should include the following in your diet:

  • Nuts
  • Shellfish
  • Eggs
  • Beans

(And, of course, green, leafy vegetables!)

8. Vitamin D

If you’re not walking in sunshine, you probably don’t feel like you’re walking on it either. Most people experience the ‘winter blues’ and, while just 10 minutes of sunshine a day can boost your Vitamin D level, that’s not always viable. On overcast days you can top up your vitamin D with:

  • Fatty fish and fish oil
  • Cheese
  • Egg Yolks
  • Mushrooms

9. Amino acids

Our bodies don’t produce all the amino acids they need and eight or nine essential ones must be supplied through diet. Both dopamine and serotonin are made from amino acids so, if we lack either of those,there will not be enough synthesis of the respective neurotransmitters”, resulting in “low mood and aggression”.

Top sources of amino acids include:

  • Eggs
  • Beans
  • Lean meat
  • Dairy products

10. Iodine

This trace element is crucial for good nutrition to treat depression because it is essential for thyroid hormone production. Those with low iodine levels will often experience mood impairment, depression, and have difficulty concentrating.

You don’t need to rush out and buy a liter of the stuff, though, just increase your intake of the following and your levels will soon optimize:

  • Seaweed
  • Egg yolks
  • Saltwater fish

Optimal Nutrition for Anxiety and Foods to Avoid

As we mentioned earlier, reducing your sugar intake can have a dramatic and positive effect on your mood. Similarly, cutting back on alcohol, avoiding processed foods, and making sure you eat regularly can all reduce the symptoms of depression and ease anxiety.

If you want to embrace good nutrition for anxiety, a good place to start is by removing the following from your diet:

1. Sugar

While it may give you a brief high, sugar contributes to brain inflammation which is directly linked to depression. Swap soda and fruit juice for water, reach for a bag of nuts instead of a candy bar and you’ll already be getting a good boost of nutritional support for depression.

2. Processed foods

This includes pretty much anything that’s been preserved, canned, cooked, frozen, or packaged. Cut out the pies and pastries, chips and bread, tinned soups and breakfast cereals, and replace it with a diet that’s rich in fish, vegetables, and whole grains and you’ll soon start to feel the difference.

3. Refined carbohydrates

The biggest culprits in this category are things like white bread, pasta, soda, snacks, and sweets. Like processed foods, refined carbohydrates have been changed from their natural state. Complex carbohydrates will give your mood a boost and leave you feeling energized.

Reach for the whole grain loaf instead of white bread, replace unhealthy snacks with fruit, and try a dish of beans with wild brown rice for a good, old-fashioned mood-enhancing meal.

4. Trans fats

We all know trans fats are bad for the heart with their artery-clogging tendencies, but did you know that a high intake of trans fats is also associated with an increased risk of depression? Fried fast foods often have high levels of trans fat, as do pizzas, pies, and chips.

The best way to reduce your trans fats intake is to cook your own meals from scratch but not everyone has the time, skill, or space to do that, which is where a meal delivery service like Home Chef comes into its own.

Rather than having to plan your meals for the week, shop for all the ingredients, and then dedicate time to cooking, a meal delivery service will bring everything you need to provide the best nutrition for depression.

Use a Meal Delivery Service for Nutrition to Help Depression

Seeing as green, leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, and nuts offer excellent nutritional support for depression, adopting a vegan diet could be the best way to improve your brain health.

Coming up with a new vegan recipe each day is challenging at the best of times, however, and even more difficult if you’re depressed. The best vegan meal delivery services source local, organic ingredients and create taste-bud-tantalizing dishes like Purple Carrot’s spiced red curry coconut noodles.

If you want to keep dairy products and eggs in your diet, you could opt for a vegetarian meal delivery service, like Green Chef, which also boasts both Keto and paleo options. These diets can be limiting, however, and those of you who are more concerned about getting a daily dose of Omega-3s may prefer a pescatarian option, like the one offered by Sun Basket.

Different meal delivery services focus on different aspects of a healthy diet, with some championing low-carb meal plans and others offering superior gluten-free options. Do a little more research and you can even find a meal delivery service that’s designed to improve your brain health by providing the best neuro-nutrition.

There’s nothing to stop you opting for the best diabetic meal delivery service either. If you look at the meals on Sun Basket’s diabetic meal plan, for instance, you’ll see a selection of meals that provide the best nutritional support for depression as well. Dishes like chicken with an almond-olive dressing will top up your Vitamin D, magnesium, and zinc levels in one fell swoop.

While the best meal delivery services for families tend to include more child-friendly fare, you’ll still get the benefits of fresh ingredients and regular portions of those all-important green, leafy vegetables.

Some meal delivery services include Mediterranean meal plans which are ideal when it comes to nutrition to treat depression. Balance by Bistro MD has a wide variety of meals based on the Mediterranean diet which includes nutrition for depression staples like fish, nuts, lentils, and healthy plant-based oils.

Top Meal Delivery Services for Anxiety Nutrition Solutions

#1 Sun Basket

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With its locally-sourced, organic ingredients and a range of meal plans, Sun Basket is worth the extra cost. Led this comprehensive review shed more light on anything and everything Sun Basket.

 

#2 Home Chef

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Balance the needs of your family with your own need for nutritional support for depression with this affordable meal delivery service. This review we wrote expounds more on the chockfull of options Home Chef can offer.

#3 Purple Carrot

Purple Carrot Meal Delivery Logo

Ditch the meat and turn to a plant-based diet full of flavor and anti-anxiety nutrition. Choose from dishes like this week’s coconut tofu or crispy artichoke rostini. With prices starting at $9.99 per portion, it’s both nutritious and budget-friendly.

For more information about Purple Carrot, check out this in-depth review we wrote.

#4 Green Chef

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Perfect for those concerned about nutrition and depression but are already committed to a specialty diet, like Keto or Paleo. Pricey but worth it given the quality of the organic ingredients. If you’re still unsure if Green Chef is the right choice, this review will help you decide.

#5 Balance by BistroMD

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Try out this meal delivery’s Mediterranean meal plan for a great way to boost nutrition for anxiety. You’ll get healthy portions, competitive prices, and a wide variety of flavors. Know more about Balance by BistroMD and the healthy options it offers in this review.

Conclusion

It may not be easy to change the habits of a lifetime but if you know the results will be a more energetic, happier you, it’s well worth a little sacrifice.

Rather than giving into unhealthy cravings that provide a short-lived high, followed by a potentially devastating low, try finding a happy medium between what you want to eat and what your brain needs you to consume.

Nuts and fruits are a great alternative to heavily processed, sugary snacks, while meal kit delivery services offer easy anxiety nutrition solutions that require only a little more effort than ordering brain-bashingly bad takeouts with their high trans fat content.

Can nutrition help depression? Certainly. It may not eradicate the condition or stop all the symptoms, but making sure you’re getting the necessary minerals to maximize your mood will certainly help reduce the severity and duration of a depressive episode.

A positive side effect is that it’s very difficult to put on weight when focusing on nutrition to help depression. Adopting a brain-boosting diet is likely to help you lose weight which will probably boost your mood even more.