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Can diet impact my mood?

answered 05:41 PM EST, Wed January 04, 2012
I have had problems in the past with depression. I am currently in remission but I know that it will likely come back someday. I have a friend who is an alternative nutritionist and she says that a lot of depression is caused by the poor diets a lot of us have. She recommends cutting out processed foods, eating only whole grains and eating basically nothing with white sugar or corn syrup.

I am sure that this is probably good dietary advice but I am less sure that changing my diet in this way will have any impact on the return of my depression. However, if there is even a 1% chance that changing my diet would reduce my risk of depression I would be on board for that change. Is the advice she is giving me good advice? Should I change my diet to reduce the chances of future bouts of depression?

Art Matthews Says...

There are possibly as many causes of depression as there are people who feel depressed. Everyone is unique. Therefore, I can't confirm that changing your diet in and of itself will with any certainty prevent you from relapsing into depression; however,...

Living a healthier lifestyle -- including changing your diet -- improves overall wellness and decreases stress on the body. Because the body and mind are intricately interwoven, stress on the mind is reduced as well. Living with less stress makes it far more likely that you can avoid a relapse. Let's look at some of the ways:

Eating healthier often means eliminating or reducing simple sugars and fat. Anyone who has seen a child after trick-or-treating has probably seen how sugar can affect mood and energy level swings: whipped up into a frenzy and crashing and burning. Not a balanced way to exist. As adults we aren't immune from that effect. Adults can experience wide swings in energy and mood based on their blood sugar levels and/or some of the other substances in our food like caffiene in chocolate and soda.

The really bad news about maintaining a long-term diet high in sugar is that we can permanently affect our digestive and endocrine systems by impacting how the pancreas and other organs work. The pancreas is a unique little organ in that it does double duty secreting digestive enzymes and hormones responsible for turning sugar into energy in the body. The liver also has to work harder when we eat a diet high in simple sugars and fat. A poor diet over time can cause changes in the liver and gall bladder that can become painful and even require surgery.

Poor diet may even account for incidences of non-alcohol related cirrhosis of the liver, an irreversible condition that can be fatal. Eating a diet with more complex carbohydrates and fiber can actually decrease weight by giving us the sensation that we are full sooner and longer and by preventing high demands on insulin creating a rapid rise and fall of blood sugar.

Eating healthier often results in changes our bodies by either dropping body fat or gaining lean muscle (or allowing the muscles we have to show). This has the secondary effect of improving mood by changing body image and/or perhaps even changing what we capable of doing physically, like walking up stairs, riding a bicycle or going for a hike. Joint pain and conditions like fibromyalgia (often occurring with depression) have also been associated with being overweight and poor diets high in sugar and low in essential nutrients.

So our moods can be affected by our diets from:

1) having improved and more consistent energy level

2) improving our body image and self-confidence

3) indirectly increasing our potential activity level due to 1), 2) and decreased discomfort and improved cardio-pulmonary output.

Some suggestions for eating healthier include:

Eating closer to the source - that means significantly reducing the amount of processed (pre-prepared) food in our diets. Look for whole grain breads over white bread. Buy fresh fruits and veggies and eat more of them raw or steamed. We recently bought a good food steamer/rice cooker and have been excited and surprised by the flavor and texture of steamed veggies!

Control your portions - limit, don't eliminate. When most people hear the word diet, they groan. They don't want to do without their favorite foods. Learning to control portions (along with eating healthier food) can allow you to eat what you like but not as often or as much. Why do most people quit a diet? They crave something they like and fall off the wagon when they experience the disappointment of having "failed." Take a paper plate and draw a line around the plate 1 1/2 to 2" inside the outer rim. Now draw directly through the center of the plate, splitting the inner circle into two equal sides. And finally draw a line from the center point of the plate bisecting one of the halves. The two smaller sections are for 1) protein and 2) breads/starches (rice and potatoes). The other side of the plate shows you how much should be fruits and veggies. Remember that fruits have more carbs so make the conscious choice to emphasize veggies.

Eat lean meats and plant proteins - the leanest of hamburger still contains fat which contains more than twice the number of calories per gram (9) as protein or carbohydrates (4). The high protein/fat diets aren't the answer for many people as they are difficult to stick to, are hard on your kidneys and place stress on the body by placing your metabolism in ketosis. When people stop the high protein diets, they tend to pack on the pounds just eating "normally", which is highly counter-productive.

Plant proteins consist of complete and incomplete proteins. Complete proteins can be substituted directly for meat and fish and include: quinoa, amaranth, bulgar wheat, mushrooms, spirulina, buckwheat, hempseed and edamamme. Soy protein can contain plant estrogens and hormones that nutritionists are now looking into so I won't suggest soy at this point. Other foods with incomplete proteins need to be mixed together to form a complete protein in the body. They include: rice, beans/legumes, corn (watch the carbs here!), steal-cut oats, oatmeal, breads (stick with whole grain), nuts and seeds. A cute rhyme to remember with bread is "The darker, the better. The whiter, the deader."

Limit foods cooked or served in butter, gravy and heavy sauces. They will be sources of a lot of fat disguised as flavor. Explore ways to increase flavor using spices, citrus fruits (like limes and lemons) and unusual produce. IMHO: Pick up a good Thai cook book for ways to cook fresh, healthy food that explodes with flavor!

Specifically for depression and anxiety, look for foods high in B-complex, C, D and E vitamins as well as high in beta-carotene, Selenium and Omega-3 Fatty Acids.

To go along with a change in diet, make sure you are also being active and getting adequate (and quality) rest. It's becoming more clear how bad our sedentary lifestyles are for our health. We need to get moving every day for 30 to 60 minutes. Now, that doesn't mean pumping iron and running a marathon. It means getting your heart rate up and sweating a bit.

Sleep is often overlooked as a remedy to emotional and physical health problems but definitely has an effect on how we feel. Look for sites on the web (sponsored by non-profits and universities) for information on how to improve your sleep. Try this for a start: http://www.utdallas.edu/counseling/insomnia/

If you aren't convinced that changing your diet would lessen the likelihood of a depression relapse simply based on a cause and effect, consider how the physical effects of aging, combined with poor diet and other unhealthy lifestyle choices could likely affect mood later in life.

Whether it has a direct affect on mood or not, eating healthier is a better choice for your long-term mental and physical wellbeing. The younger you make the decision to change your diet, the deeper and longer lasting the benefits will be.

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Page last updated Jan 04, 2012

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