Anyone who has ever felt bloated or sluggish after a large meal of processed or fatty foods knows that there is a strong link between what you eat and how you feel. What we often forget is that the foods we eat not only feed our bodies and muscles, but also our brains.
In a recent study, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which promotes foods low in saturated fat and sugar, and high in whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, was found to reduce the risk of depression later in life — compared to a Western diet — and help with managing weight and blood pressure.
Another review of 21 different clinical studies found a clear link between dietary patterns and the risk of depression. A diet with high amounts of red or processed meat, refined grains, sugary foods, high-fat dairy products, butter and potatoes, and low intakes of fruits and vegetables, is associated with an increased risk of depression.
“Studies have shown that a diet high in sugar can aggravate mood disorders and worsen depression,” she says. She adds, “Large-scale production of animal meats has changed the nutritional value of animals and increased the amount of omega-6 fatty acids that we consume.” Studies have found a link between higher rates of omega-6 fatty acids and major depressive disorder.
While a healthy diet cannot prevent or cure depression, Dr. Ignacio recommends increasing consumption of the following types of foods to boost mental and physical health.
- Fruits and Vegetables
“Fresh fruits and vegetables contain nutrients that boost your mood and reduce overall inflammation,” Dr. Ignacio says. A study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that increased inflammation in the body could play a role in depression.
Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) names the “clean 15” foods that have the lowest pesticide load and are the safest conventionally grown crops to consume, and the “dirty dozen” that rank the highest in pesticide residue. Dr. Ignacio recommends choosing from the “clean” list.
- Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Extra-virgin olive oil — also known as EVOO — is a great source of monounsaturated fats and antioxidants that have been linked to heart health.
“Extra-virgin olive oil contains polyphenols, which act as antioxidants, reducing the oxidative stress throughout your body,” says Dr. Ignacio. “This is good for overall well-being as well as mental health.”
Probiotics and foods that are probiotic (fermented foods like kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, pickles or kombucha) are great for your gut, which can help improve your mental health. A study from the National Institutes of Health suggests that incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into your diet can help aid in your gut's ability to communicate with the brain.
“Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep, appetite and mood,” says Dr. Ignacio. “Ninety-five percent of serotonin is produced by the GI tract. When the gut isn't working right due to poor diet, neither is your brain,” says Dr. Ignacio. “This shows how the gut is intimately connected to brain function.”
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Kathlyn Ignacio about diet and mental health for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.