Ever feel down after pigging out? Zapped of energy and cranky after that greasy burger and fries? You're not imagining the correlation. When you feel sluggish and low after eating, it's your body's inflammatory response to junk food — and it can affect your mood. Here's what you need to know about depression and diet (plus which foods to eat and which foods to avoid).
Before we begin: get healthy anti-inflammatory meals (that actually taste good)
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Inflammation isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's designed to help us heal from injury or infection.
When we are hurt or sick, our immune system sends armies of white blood cells to fight off the injury or illness and repair damaged tissue. As our bodies use inflammation to fight off whatever's hurting us, we tend to feel tired, dopey, and down. We tend to sleep a lot. All this inactivity allows our bodies to fight off infection without wasting energy elsewhere.
While inflammation as a defense mechanism is a healthy and necessary response, chronic inflammation is not. Chronic inflammation happens when there isn't injury or illness. The problem is your body can't tell the different so it still sends in white blood cells to attack healthy tissue instead. And you end up feeling tired, dopey, and down...a lot.
What's all this have to do with diet?
The bad news: Inflammation can trigger depression and disease. When we eat processed, fatty, and sugary foods we can send our bodies into a state of chronic inflammation and screw with our gut microbiomes along the way. This does more than just make us feel sluggish — it can actually induce depression (1)
The good news: Antioxidants can help fight inflammation (and depression).
Why antioxidants matter when it comes to depression and diet
You've probably heard about antioxidants, right? We're here to tell you they're more than just a health food buzz word. Antioxidants are the “good for you” nutrients found in dark and colorful plant foods. Their job is to stop oxidative stress from occurring by stabilizing free radicals (which are unstable atoms responsible for aging, tissue damage, and certain diseases).
Antioxidants calm inflammation, which in turn prevents disease, slows aging, and even reduces symptoms of depression.
Eating your antioxidant-rich foods are important, but knowing which foods trigger inflammation is key when it comes to depression and diet.
Fatty foods high in trans fat and omega-6s (found in meats and refined oils), refined sugars, refined grains, and dairy products all cause inflammation. All these foods have few antioxidants to counteract their oxidative effects, so when we eat them we're left feeling sluggish and we're more susceptible to disease, including depression (2).
You know how you feel a little down after binging on junk food? This reaction isn't just psychological, it's also chemical and biological!
Your mental health is directly affected by your gut health, which can overtime be controlled by what you eat. And fiber seems to play a pivotal role on your gut health (and consequently, your mental health).
Here's the deal:
Our guts and brains are connected by neurotransmitters that transmit chemicals between nerve cells during a process called synapses. These endogenous chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin, help control our emotions.
Our gut actually produces a ton of these neurotransmitters, specifically serotonin, or the “feel good” chemical.
And get this: high fiber plant foods increase your neuroplasticity, making that transmission during synapse more effective. That is why a healthy gut full of good bacteria can help your mood and reduce anxiety and depression (3).
So now that we know there's a connection between depression and diet...what the heck do we eat to feel better? The simplest solution to reduce inflammation naturally is to load up on more plant-based foods, like:
- Fruits, veggies, beans, and nuts which are loaded with antioxidants and fiber, for a healthy gut and healthy brain.
- Antioxidants are found in highest concentrations in dark and colorful plant-based foods! Go for berries, dark leafy greens, citrus fruits, colorful peppers, and spices.
Eliminating inflammatory foods is another crucial piece of the puzzle. Try cutting out:
- fatty meats
- refined sugars
- processed foods
- Depression and diet are linked. Chronic inflammation (and eating the foods that cause this) can hurt your mental health.
- Good gut bacteria can help battle depression.
- The best diet for depression? A colorful plant-based diet, high in antioxidants.
- The worst foods for depression? Standard American Diet fare, like fatty meats, dairy, refined sugars, and processed foods.
- You don't have to spend all day meal prepping to boost your brain health with diet. Get antioxidant-rich plant-based meals delivered to your door with the MamaSezz Get Me Started Bundle.
(3) Harvard Health
Caroline is a plant-based chef, recipe designer, and whole food plant-based nutrition educator, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.