Depression and anxiety are often treated with medications, but the foods we eat also play a key role in regulating our mood. If you suffer from depression and anxiety, you may benefit from incorporating certain foods into your diet in addition to other measures as recommended by your doctor, such as therapy, medication, or self-care practices like meditation.
Nutrition and mental health
The foods you eat aren’t just fueling you physically—they also provide nutrients that can affect your mood. Research suggests that lower sugar intake may be associated with better psychological health. Meanwhile, not getting enough of certain vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients can worsen depression and anxiety, making it even more important to eat a balanced diet.
For example, vitamin B6, which is often found in fish, beef liver, and starchy vegetables, helps make the feel-good chemical, serotonin. And low levels of serotonin are commonly associated with anxiety and depression. Conversely, boosting serotonin levels can help treat depression, according to research in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, meaning filling your diet with foods that increase serotonin can be a great step to improving mental health.
There are many nutrients aside from vitamin B6 that contribute to mental health, including omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, protein, and vitamin D, according to Samantha Franceshini, a health coach at Parsley Health in New York City. “Literally any deficiency in any nutrient can resonate as symptoms of anxiety and depression,” she says.
You may be tempted to pop a multivitamin and be done with it. However, you’ll probably see better results from tackling your diet. “Taking one multivitamin could be a great preventative to any nutritional deficiency, but at the end of the day, food is always going to be more bioavailable to the body,” Franceshini says. In other words, food is the optimal way to get more feel-good nutrients into your diet, helping with symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Franceshini recommends focusing on incorporating one or two mood-boosting foods for anxiety and depression into your diet every week, as opposed to trying to overhaul your entire diet at once.
The best foods for anxiety and depression
Fruit, in general, provides plenty of beneficial phytonutrients (chemicals produced by plants), antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that can help with anxiety and depression, according to Franceshini. However, many fruits are also high in sugar, which can create other health problems (e.g., weight gain, increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, etc.) if you overdo it. Berries (raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, etc.), on the other hand, tend to be lower in sugar and higher in helpful nutrients like vitamin C, making them a great food for anxiety and depression. Just one cup of strawberries, for example, contains 100 percent of your recommended daily value, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. And high vitamin C levels are associated with elevated mood, according to research in Antioxidants.
Asparagus is among the foods with the highest levels of folate, a type of B vitamin that’s been linked to depression and anxiety. According to 2006 research published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, a folate deficiency is common in major depressive disorders. What’s more, taking 2 mg of folic acid (a form of the vitamin often used in fortified foods and dietary supplements) may boost the effectiveness of antidepressants if you are on them. You can get roughly 22 percent of your recommended daily value of folate in just four asparagus spears, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Avocados are loaded with healthy-brain vitamins and minerals like magnesium, vitamin B6, and folate. Magnesium, for example, plays a key role in keeping your brain healthy: “High levels of magnesium can support dopamine production in the body,” Franceshini says. (Dopamine is another feel-good brain chemical.) In fact, low levels of magnesium are often seen in people with depression, according to research in Pharmacological Reports. So avocados’ high magnesium content makes them a great food for depression: One cup of cubed avocado packs roughly 42.3 mg (10 percent daily value) magnesium, 0.375 mg (2.2 percent DV) vitamin B6, and 118 micrograms (30 percent daily value) folate.
4. Wild fish
Studies show there is a link between eating loads of fish and a low incidence of mental disorders. Researchers credit the mental health benefits of fish to omega-3 fatty acids, according to a review in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry. “[Omega-3 fatty acids] are really important in the communication processes in the brain and reducing inflammation in the neurological system,” Franceshini says. She recommends wild, fatty fish like salmon, but if you don’t eat meat or you have a hard time incorporating fish into your diet, you can also try fish oil or omega-3 supplements. (Flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds are also rich sources of omega-3s, Franceshini says.) One to two grams of omega-3 fatty acids is the recommended daily dose for healthy people, but up to 9.6 grams has been shown to be safe and effective for people with mental disorders, including depression and anxiety, according to the same review.
5. Protein powder
As you may recall from your high school biology class, protein is made up of amino acids. Amino acids, in turn, are used to create neurotransmitters that regulate mood and memory. Dopamine, for example, is made from the amino acid tyrosine, while serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan, according to a review in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry. “Amino acids are going to support neurological function, so getting enough protein is very important,” Franceshini says. Protein powder offers an easy way for everyone—vegans and vegetarians included—to boost their protein intake. Thankfully, protein powder is tasty when added to smoothies and shakes; blend with avocado and berries for a one-two punch.
Eggs are a great source of choline. Choline is a nutrient that’s used to create acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and helps with memory, according to Franceshini. Just one large hardboiled egg provides 27 percent of your daily value of choline, according to the National Institutes of Health.