We all know hangry, and Martha from Southern California is no exception. “When my 9-year-old daughter is asking me questions, and I get irritated, I know that I’m not going to feel better until I stop and eat something,” she says.
Hunger, which deprives your brain of fuel, can trigger a stress response, which often expresses itself as irritability or anger, i.e., being hangry. Whereas providing your brain with optimal fuel, such as superfoods—nutrient-rich foods that promote health—could help ease your depression or anxiety.
“A lot of nutrients, such as B12 and omega-3, are involved in chemical production in the brain and are necessary for optimal brain function,” says Kristina Petersen, PhD, APD Assistant Research Professor, Department of Nutritional Sciences Penn State University.
“Diet is causatively associated with anxiety and depression. Suboptimal diets have a much higher association,” she says, which means eating unhealthy food can exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Petersen defines a suboptimal diet as one that is high in processed sugar, added sugar, saturated fat, a lot of processed foods, and ultra-processed foods, such as soda, instant noodles, and chicken nuggets.
Eat Complete author and founder of the Brain Food Clinic in New York City, Drew Ramsey, MD, notes, “For some folks, dietary change might be the only intervention they need [to address their mental health concerns]. For others, it may be a combination of dietary change and talk therapy or may include medication.” Ramsey add that fruits and vegetables of all colors have varying health properties related to depression and anxiety. “We always encourage folks to eat the rainbow, because the variety in color represents variety in phytonutrients [plant nutrients].”
Conor, from Southern California and now 24 years old, has struggled with anxiety since childhood. Competitive baseball served as his coping mechanism, but, at 20, an injury took him out of the game, and he finally sought treatment for anxiety and depression. “Nutrition was one of the first things [my] medical provider tried to help me with,” says Conor, who immediately made changes such as cutting out all processed foods, alcohol, and sugars.
He noticed the biggest improvement came from cutting out alcohol and sugar, which had left him tired and lethargic from the crash once the sugar wore off. This contributed to his anxiety.
“It helped a lot, but it wasn’t enough. Ultimately, we decided that I should try medication too,” Conor says. His dramatic improvement from treatment, of which nutrition was a significant part, inspired him to write Coping with Depression & Anxiety: There is Hope, a book that is meant to be a tool full of tips and techniques he has learned to use for daily life.
“If you are susceptible to anxiety or depression, nutrition can make a difference,” says Natalie Parletta, PhD, Master of Dietetics, BPsych(Hons), and adjunct senior research fellow at the University of South Australia. Parletta published a study in December 2017’s Nutritional Neuroscience, which noted a decrease in depression for those fed a Mediterranean diet supplemented with fish oil.
For a Mediterranean-based diet that benefits your brain as much as possible, she recommends:
- making sure to include ﬁsh, seafood, legumes (beans and lentils), leafy greens, other vegetables, olive oil (monounsaturated fat), and nuts;
- not forgetting lean red meat, which has B12 and iron (low iron has been linked to depression);
- avoiding processed foods as much as possible; and
- especially avoiding ultra-processed foods that are high-calorie, low-fiber, and mostly made up of refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, sweeteners or salt, such as mass-produced and packaged snacks, including breads, desserts, ready-made meals, and processed meats.
Eating unhealthy food triggers an immune response in your body. Constantly eating unhealthy food turns the immune response into chronic inflammation. Obesity can become a double whammy as excess body fat has also been linked to inflammation.
“If you have a diet rich in anti-inflammatory food, you can decrease inflammation, which can improve mental health,” says Petersen.
Anti-inflammatory are foods that contain antioxidants. Ramsey explains, “The antioxidants are . . . like signaling molecules, and recent studies suggest the way they help us is by changing the [gut] microbiome to decrease inflammation.”
There is another benefit. “Inflammation is one of the major risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Improved blood flow from a healthier cardiovascular system benefits the brain,” Petersen points out.
Replacing processed foods with foods rich in the nutrients your brain requires to function optimally can be a significant part of de-escalating your depression or anxiety.
According to a 2015 Australian study published in BMC Medicine, too much junk food and too little nutritious food are both linked to shrinking your brain’s hippocampus, which plays a role in mood regulation.
“We’ve changed the human diet more in the past 100 years than the last 100,000. Overall, we [are losing] the nutrient density of our diet as we eat fewer plants and we are eating more refined carbohydrates,” says Ramsey, who is also a farmer and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University.
“Avoiding heavily processed foods and eating a nutrient-dense diet has tremendous benefits for the brain. While some brain benefits are readily apparent, others work silently beneath the surface and have long-term impact,” Ramsey notes.
“I used to grab packaged foods from the supermarket that had a page[‘s] worth of ingredients, such as frozen taquitos,” recalls Martha. She has since replaced ultra-processed foods with superfoods, such as chia and sunflower seeds, fish, lentils, eggs, and berries. These gradual changes enabled her to lose 90 pounds and keep her depression and anxiety from taking over.
Although vegan restaurants and vegan menu options are springing up across the U.S., going 100% vegan poses challenges. Ramsey says, “Eating a vegan diet does often lead to nutritional deficiencies. That said, it is possible to supplement appropriately.”
Now in her thirties, Lauren, from Kansas, spent her early years of college living on candy bars and coffee. This suboptimal diet led to dehydration and exacerbation of her undiagnosed depression. She eventually made her way to a therapist who diagnosed her depression and realized how much her diet was having an impact on her symptoms.
With this diagnosis in hand, Lauren eventually embraced a vegan diet, and the challenges that go along with it. She fortifies her vegan diet with B12 and a supplement containing aquatic vegetables, and makes sure to eat a lot of green leafy vegetables to help get enough protein. She says, “I used to take iron, but I started cooking with a cast iron skillet,” which can add iron during the cooking process.
Although a vegan diet may work for some people, the takeaway here is that the foundation of healthy eating isn’t a fad diet. While some extreme techniques may work sometimes, for some people, it’s much more effective—not to mention safer—to structure your diet around whole, healthy foods, eaten in moderation.
Becoming aware of which nutrient-dense foods work the best for you is a process. Considerations include food preferences, food intolerances, and expense.
Food intolerances involve the digestive system and can cause weight gain, gas, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. They are not life threatening, but can keep your body from absorbing nutrients, which can contribute to depression and anxiety.
Drew, 32 and from Cleveland, Ohio, co-founder of The Gut Program, was diagnosed with anxiety as a teenager. However, his biggest breakthrough came several years ago when he learned he had a fructose intolerance. Drew went on a low-fructose, low-FODMAP (types of carbohydrates) diet, which included eliminating high-fructose corn syrup.
“Within three weeks, I was more relaxed and had much less anxiety,” says Drew. “No brain fog and a lot sharper. Gone was the sense of worry and dread.”
Since his new diet has the additional payoff of decreasing his anxiety, Drew has become much more aware of the connection. “We go on vacation to different resorts, and, that whole week after, I am stressed out and anxious. It takes a while to get back,” He says and then quickly adds, “No one’s perfect.”
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Before getting started
Make sure you have these basic unhealthy habits in check, so as to not cancel out your gains from eating superfoods.
Skipping breakfast or other meals can wreak havoc on your blood sugar level and induce shakiness, dizziness, confusion, and trouble speaking.
Not drinking enough water can make your heart race and leave you feeling light-headed and dizzy.
Caffeine is a diuretic, which can lead to dehydration. It is also a stimulant and can cause jitters and irregular heart rhythm, which can feel like a panic attack.
Ready, set, go . . . slow
If you’re feeling low, change can seem daunting. Parletta recommends starting gradually by making small improvements, such as an extra vegetable every day or committing to one serving of fish a week. Once the small changes make you feel a little better, you’ll be motivated to make further changes.
Lauren almost wishes that someone had told her at the peak of her depression that feeling like herself again would be a process because, “It comes so, so slow. Slowly, you feel better.”