Diet and Depression: How Food Can Help with Depression Symptoms

Food That May Improve Depression Symptoms

What you eat can affect your mood -- positively and negatively. For example, getting enough of certain types of food, like beans and fish, may help you manage depression symptoms. But getting too much sugar, bread, and pasta may lower your mood.

"There aren't any specific foods that fight depression," says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, RD, CDN, a national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of The Belly Fat Fix and Overcoming Binge Eating For Dummies.

The best thing you can do is eat healthy, Cohn says. "An overall healthy and balanced diet that provides the body with all the essential nutrients can help when someone is depressed."

However, some research has shown that certain foods may affect mood:

Common Foods That May Make Your Depression Worse


All kinds of beans -- such as pinto, garbanzo, black -- are rich in folate, the naturally occurring B vitamin. Folate, or folic acid, plays an important role in how the brain works. Your brain needs folic acid to make certain essential compounds and neurotransmitters. These carry messages from one area of your brain to another.

A study in The American Journal of Psychiatry in December 2012 found that certain patients with major depressive disorder responded better to antidepressants when additional folate was included in their treatment.

And although it still isn't clear whether folate is an effective treatment for depression, getting enough of this important vitamin is part of an overall healthy diet. Other sources of folate (folic acid) include:

  • asparagus,
  • spinach,
  • avocado,
  • broccoli,
  • fortified breakfast cereal,
  • eggs, and
  • tomato juice.

Fish Oil

Salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, albacore tuna: These oily fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Your body doesn't make omega-3s, so eating them is the only way you can get them. And like folic acid, omega-3s help build neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which help regulate mood. Getting enough omega-3s helps your body produce serotonin.

A study in 2011 in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that patients suffering from an episode of major depression improved when they were given omega-3 supplements.

An added bonus: Fatty acids from fish like omega-3s may also improve circulation and help lower your risk of heart disease.

Flaxseed and walnuts are also good sources of omega-3s.

Fortified Cereal

Whole grain cereals fortified with vitamin D should be included in your diet. You can get two benefits from one serving: Whole grains contain complex carbohydrates, and complex carbohydrates can make you feel good. Complex carbohydrates help your body to release the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin.

Vitamin D is important for fighting depression as well. A large study by researchers at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas found a strong link between adults with a history of depression and low vitamin D levels.

Other sources of vitamin D include low-fat dairy products and sunshine (though don't risk getting sunburned).


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Foods That May Make You Feel Worse

While some foods can boost your mood, others may contribute to mood problems. M. Cohn, RD, CDN explains that when you eat too many sweets or highly refined carbohydrates (breads and pastas made from white flour, for example), your blood sugar will rise rapidly and then fall.

A small study in the April 2012 issue of Diabetes Technology and Therapeutics found that women with type 2 diabetes experienced mood swings as their blood sugar fluctuated.

"One's mood may lift temporarily when eating large amounts of sweets and refined carbs," Cohn says. "However, the after effects may contribute to more depression."

And if you have celiac disease, your intestines can't absorb some essential nutrients. That includes B vitamins and the amino acid tryptophan that keep your brain healthy. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin. You need these nutrients for your brain to produce the chemicals including serotonin that regulate mood.

Some people find gluten can affect their mood even if they don't have celiac disease. Cutting gluten from your diet may improve your mood.

Healthy Diet and Exercise May Improve Depression Symptoms

A healthy diet is essential to staying well. It's equally important to maintain a healthy weight and get regular exercise if you want to feel good, Cohn says.

Exercise releases endorphins, hormones that can make you feel positive and well balanced, she says. Exercise also can help you stay at a healthy weight. Carrying extra weight can make you feel bad about yourself.

Diet and lifestyle changes are not a cure-all for depression. But certain foods can affect your mood, so when it comes to what you eat, choose wisely. Talk to your doctor about how to best manage your depression.

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Medically reviewed by Marina Katz, MD American Board of Psychiatry & Neurology

Author: Beth W. Orenstein


Marjorie Nolan Cohn, RD, Nutritionist New York City.

Lesperance, F. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2011.

Hoang, M. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, November 2011.

Penckofer, S. Does glycemic variability impact mood and quality of life?

Diabetes Technology & Therapeutics, April 2012.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: "Omega-3 Supplements: An Introduction."

Johns Hopkins Health Alerts: "Depression and Celiac Disease: A Growing Problem."

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center: "Can Folic Acid Help Ease Depression?"

Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health: "Dietary Supplements Fact Sheet: Folate."

Papakostas, G. L-Methyfolate as adjunctive therapy for SSRI-resistant major depression.