Here’s Why What You Eat Matters for Depression

Food is pretty integral to our everyday lives. While we sort of get used to it over time, the reality remains that most people reading this tend to eat at least once a day – most of us eat more often than that. If you think about how many meals are consumed over the course of a week, you end up with quite a lot of food. That food, over time, becomes part of us.

A lot of it is removed from the body – but what’s digested is used partially to fuel the body – giving us the glucose our cells need to produce energy and get things done – and to aid in the creation of new cells, the building of muscle tissue, the accumulation of fat storage, the facilitation of electric pulses between nerves and muscles, and so on and so forth.

Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach wrote: “you are what you eat”, and since then, it’s been basically repeated ad nauseum by every book, business, motivational podcast or nutritional blog trying to get you to change your diet, live a healthier life, and buy something. Self-awareness being what it is, I’m very aware of the fact that everyone reading this knows that eating is important, and what you eat is just as important. If you eat a lot of trash, you can’t expect to feel great.

But it’s not just physical. Feuerbach knew this when he wrote that infamous phrase nearly two centuries ago – in the context of his book, Concerning Spiritualism and Materialism, he asserted that food is important for physical ­as well as mental health, clarifying that what we eat has a direct effect on the mind as well as the body.

I’m not asserting that hamburgers have led to your depression. But a poor diet may contribute to worsening depressive symptoms, while eating better correlates with feeling better, even in cases of a major depressive disorder. But the big question is: why? And the even bigger question is: how are you supposed to figure out how to eat healthier when you’re struggling with getting out of bed in the morning?

Food and You: A Complicated Relationship

For those with an elementary understanding of how nutrition works, food can basically be broken down into three separate things: macronutrients, micronutrients, and calories. Calories aren’t actually a thing – they’re a measurement to tell us how much energy we can get from a food item based on what’s in it. So, if you eat something high in calories, what you’re doing is eating something that can be converted into a lot of energy. If you eat more calories than you need, your body will either use them to create more muscle mass (you need to eat in a surplus to grow muscle), or it’ll create fat storage, reconverting unused sugars into glycerin.

The very same food that gives you energy also gives you nutrients. Macronutrients are our fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, all of which are needed to a certain extent to stay healthy. Micronutrients are just as important, but we require much less of them. These are your basic minerals and vitamins, necessary for nerve function, organ function, brain function, movement, thinking, and existing in general.

However, not everybody works the same way. Food is composed of much more than just the things we know, love, and need – there are many things in our food that we don’t need, including certain things that some people may be individually sensitive towards. Take soy, for example: soy is widespread in the food industry, particularly because it is often a fast-growing and government-subsidized crop, making it cheap and easy to work with. The fact that it’s rich in both protein and carbohydrates means that soy can be worked into many products to cut costs or improve texture.

But not everyone can thrive on a diet high in soy. Soy sensitivity causes abdominal pain, nausea, and swelling among a few other symptoms. More common sensitivities include gluten and lactose, which are common in wheat and dairy products – two staples in many parts of the world. Aside from producing physical symptoms, eating something your body can’t really handle very well can actually have a mental effect on you. Studies show 1 a relationship between food sensitivities and worsening psychological symptoms. One theoretical link is the gut brain, which has not been extensively researched.

Our guts are fascinating places. Your gut – basically your digestive tract – contains billions of single-celled organisms. If you’d count each one, you’d arrive at a number roughly ten times the number of cells your body is made up of. This is possible because these bacteria are much smaller than the cells that your body is composed of, yet they’re very important. Among all the bacteria also live countless types of viruses, fungi, bacteriophages, and more. If you will, it’s an entire ecosystem residing strictly within the bounds of your gut.

Why is this significant? Because gut health is very relevant to a person’s overall mental and physical health, while the gut and its many bacteria account for a large portion of your mood, thinking, and physical function, referred to as the enteric nervous system. This, combined with the central nervous system, composes the brain-gut axis that is currently being explored by medicine. The manipulation and careful treatment of gut bacteria can affect you in every way, from improving mood to reducing the risk of certain diseases. 2 3

It’s not just a “gut feeling”. Nerves in the gut have a substantial effect on the mind, alongside the brain. That, and the fact that a large percentage of individuals with bowel problems encounter depression and anxiety helps explain how better food habits can help you lessen the symptoms of certain mental health issues, potentially including depression. Currently, researchers are working on establishing a better understanding of the link between the gut and the brain – and conversely, how specialized diets basically help us think better, feel better, and generally live better lives.

Should You Bother with Calories?

A lot of people worry about calories when it comes to weight loss. While it’s true that gaining weight often unsettles people, worsens their body image and increases symptoms of depression, a spiraling path of unnecessarily grueling workouts combined with yoyo diets or calorie-obsessing will only worsen the depression, and possibly lead to an eating disorder.

Start by eliminating hidden sugars and snacks. Much of the extra calories we eat come from foods we consume because we’re bored or get hungry between meals, and these snacks tend to be high in sugar and fat. You can still have fast food on occasion but cut out the fries and soda. You can still eat your normal meals, but cut down on the snacking, and consider adding more filling options to your meals, replacing white bread with heavier alternatives such as whole wheat or sourdough, and consuming more vegetables and less fruits. Cut down on the yogurt and granola, and opt for a more filling breakfast, or no breakfast at all – going longer periods in the morning without eating can help you avoid spiking your blood sugar early in the day, while a big lunch ensures that you don’t end up needing an afternoon snack.

If you adjust your eating habits to cut out the excess and stick to large, filling meals with few or no refined sugars, you will end up with a reduced appetite and a lower calorie count. Protein-rich foods, including lean meats, fish, beans and rice, or spreads like hummus, send the body signals to be less hungry. Slow-burning carbs like traditional rolled oats keep you from getting an insulin spike, which sends your energy into a rollercoaster pattern. If you still see the need to count calories, do so only temporarily to have a general idea of what you eat, rather than turning it into a compulsive habit.

The next step is to just feel better in your body. Start by doing exercise in a fashion that you actually enjoy. Don’t go running if you hate running. Try something new – or even better, try like five different new things. Movement makes people happy, and that’s a fact – the fine print is that we tend to enjoy certain types of movement, and you’ll never know what you like best until you try it. Rather than thinking about diet and exercise as ways to get a flatter stomach or bigger muscles, start by making manageable adjustments to what you eat and devoting ten minutes a day to do a type of movement you really enjoy.

It’s Not Just What You Eat

Food is important, but drink is just as important. While ideally, we should only be consuming clean drinking water, that’s kind of boring. Most of the world drinks tea from tea leaves, while the second most common beverage globally is coffee. After that comes a long list of other things, from energy drinks to booze. All these beverages can have a significant effect on mental health if consumed too often, or at all. Caffeine, while immensely useful for productivity, can also increase symptoms of depression and anxiety, particularly making people more anxious. Tea inhibits this somewhat despite also containing caffeine, as the L-theanine in tea counteracts caffeine’s anxiety-inducing qualities.

Alcohol, while part and parcel of a long history of traditions throughout the world, is usually terrible for the body and consequently for the mind. While alcohol temporarily reduces anxiety levels, in the long-term an increased consumption of alcohol leads to higher levels of mental and physical stress, and its impact on the gut flora is not to be underestimated either.

One experiment for reducing certain symptoms of depression would be to cut coffee and booze and stick to green teas. Black tea has a higher concentration of caffeine and lower concentration of L-theanine. Herbal infusions – such as chamomile teas – may be good for the mind depending on the herb, but do not generally have any tea leaves in them. Try to stay away from potentially artificial teas, as well as any form of powdered or instant drink. Matcha, or traditional Japanese powdered tea, is an exception, as it is made of extremely high-quality tea leaves specially prepared and powdered into a fine dust. However, good matcha is quite expensive, and can be an acquired taste.

Paying attention to what you eat, and drink, may have a significant impact on how you feel. The only way to know for sure, however, is to go to a professional. Your nutritional needs are generally based on genetics, so having an accurate understanding of what your ancestors used to eat may give you some clues as to what foods you’re most compatible with. Avoid processed foods as much as possible, as well as excess or hidden sugars. A diet rich in fibers and micronutrients is important, while minimizing refined grains such as white rice and bleached flour. If your ancestors were largely Northern European, it’s unlikely that you’re sensitive to lactose and gluten, for example, as milk and bread were common staples among peasants and nobility alike.

However, ancestral diets are not always accurate. If you can, visit a nutritionist or doctor to identify any food sensitivities and come up with a list of healthy foods you can physically tolerate and enjoy.

  1. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0260106089006003032
  2. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_body/the-brain-gut-connection
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3983973/