Diet for depression: how to support your nutrition clients
As a nutrition professional, you can create a diet for depression to help improve your clients’ mental health. From zinc to probiotics, here are some foods for depression to include in meal plans.
The connection between diet and physical health has been well elucidated. However, with an increased awareness surrounding mental health, the impact of diet on depression has become a topic of interest. In fact, depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States, with over 8% of adults reporting one major depressive episode in 2020.
Science states that a major depressive episode is defined as a feeling depressed, or losing interest in daily activities for a period of two weeks or more. While certain lifestyle changes, stressors, relationships, and global conflict can all play a role in depressive episodes, the foods your clients eat may also impact their mental health.
In this article, we will discuss the role a healthy diet plays in depression, and how you, as a dietitian, can help your nutrition clients choose foods that will support their physical and mental health.
DISCLAIMER: If you feel it’s necessary, refer your client to other specialists like psychologists, psychiatrists, or physicians who specialize in behavioral health. Do not try to treat a client on your own if you are not skilled in this area.
How are diet and depression related?
Recently, there has been growing evidence of a link between diet and depression. While the exact mechanisms may not be fully understood, research has found that healthy eating patterns may reduce the incidence of depression and have a positive impact on gut health.
Studies show that the gut microbiome has a direct impact on how the brain functions by synthesizing neurotransmitters that send chemical messages to regulate sleep, pain, appetite, mood, and emotion. This phenomenon is referred to as the gut-brain connection, or the gut-brain axis.
Gut bacteria also produce hundreds of neurochemicals that regulate mental processes like learning, memory and mood. For example, gut bacteria manufacture about 95% of the body's supply of serotonin, which influences both mood and GI activity.
However, when the gut microbiome is imbalanced, you can experience dysbiosis, which can cause a wide range of ailments from mild discomfort to chronic health conditions.
Dysbiosis can be the result of:
- Eating a poor diet
- Drinking two or more alcoholic beverages per day
- Taking new medications that affect your gut flora
- Having poor dental hygiene
- Experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety
TIP: Learn more about gut health with our ultimate guide.
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Important nutrients for mental health
There is no specific diet for depression, but there are certain nutrients that can have a positive effect on mental health. Let’s examine some of these nutrients in more detail.
Zinc is an essential trace element that can enhance immune function, protein and DNA synthesis, wound healing, and cell signaling and division. Studies have also found that zinc plays a role in mental health, as a deficiency can cause increased serum cortisol levels, which may lead to the development of depression.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for zinc is 11 mg for men over 14 years old, and 8 mg for women over 18 years old. However, this number slightly increases to 11 and 12 mg per day for pregnant and lactating women over 18 years old, respectively.
Dietary sources of zinc include beans, eggs, oysters, whole grains, and fortified cereals.
Magnesium is an intracellular cation that is a coenzyme for hundreds of reactions in the body, many of which are important for proper brain function. Magnesium is also important for the central nervous system function and may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, stroke, hypertension, and migraines.
Inadequate magnesium has been shown to alter the central nervous system’s ability to function normally. Furthermore, studies have found that those who are deficient in magnesium tend to display behavioral deficits associated with depression.
The RDA for magnesium is as follows:
- Men 14 - 18 years old: 410 mg/day
- Men 19 - 30 years old: 400 mg/day
- Men over 31 years old: 420 mg/day
- Women 14 - 18 years old: 360 mg/day, but this increases to 400 mg/day and 360 mg/day for pregnant and lactating women, respectively
- Women 19 - 30 years old: 310 mg/day, but this increases to 350 mg/day and 310 mg/day for pregnant and lactating women, respectively
- Women over 31 years old: 320 mg/day, but this increases to 360 mg/day and 320 mg/day for pregnant and lactating women, respectively
Plant based foods like nuts, seeds, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables are great sources of magnesium. Interestingly, 68% of Americans consume less than the RDA of magnesium, so supplementation may be needed to meet nutritional needs.
Selenium is an essential trace element that promotes antioxidant activities in the brain and nervous system. It’s also required for the synthesis and metabolism of thyroid hormones, the latter of which is related to mood disorders and cognitive dysfunction. Furthermore, studies have concluded that adequate selenium intake could be protective against depression.
The RDA for selenium is 55 mcg/day for men and women over 14 years old, with this number increasing to 60 mcg/day and 70 mcg/day for pregnant and lactating women, respectively.
Selenium can be found in whole grains, Brazil nuts, and organ meats.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential fat that needs to be consumed through diet. Science has found that they are beneficial for heart health, cancer prevention, rheumatoid arthritis, and cognitive function, but emerging research shows that omega-3s also have anti-inflammatory effects to decrease the symptoms of depression.
The adequate intake (AI) for omega-3 is 1.1 g/day and 1.6 g/day for women and men over 14 years old, respectively, with pregnant and lactating women needing 1.4 g/day and 1.3 g/day, respectively.
There are a few types of omega-3s: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic (ALA), all of which can be found in various foods. Some food sources of omega-3s include flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, fatty fish, and fortified foods.
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that is required for the central nervous system, healthy red blood cell formation, and DNA synthesis. It also plays a role in mental health, as a deficiency has been associated with a higher risk of depression.
The RDA for vitamin B12 is 2.4 mcg/day for men and women over 14 years old, with this number increasing to 2.6 mcg/day and 2.8 mcg/day for pregnant and lactating women, respectively.
Vitamin B12 is found in animal products like red meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Those who consume a vegetarian or vegan diet might need to supplement to meet their needs.
Science shows that the gut microbiome can influence and modulate emotional behavior. Since probiotics support gut health, experts indicate that daily consumption could have a positive effect on mental health.
Good sources of probiotics include yogurt, kimchi, tempeh, sauerkraut, and kefir.
TIP: Discover more gut-healthy foods with this article.
Foods to avoid
If your client is experiencing symptoms of depression, you can work with them to eliminate a few things from their diet to see if things improve. Here are some science-backed foods that may negatively impact mental health.
- Alcohol. Studies have found that alcohol and depression symptoms are closely linked, since drinking typically makes the mood disorder, depression, or anxiety worse. If your client is struggling with mental health, encourage them to abstain from alcohol or drink only in moderation.
- Caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant that impacts mental health and can increase anxiety. Caffeine in small amounts (<200 mg/day) is typically not an issue, but consuming large quantities might be harmful to mental health.
- Processed foods. Ultra processed foods tend to be higher in calories, salt, fat, and added sugars, and low in nutrient density. Studies have found that eating these types of foods throughout the week are correlated with a higher incidence of symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, and stress.
TIP: As a dietitian, you can help your clients overcome food addiction with our article.
Lifestyle tips for depression
While diet plays an important role in alleviating symptoms of depression, certain lifestyle changes can be beneficial as well. Here are some other ways you can guide your clients to better mental health.
- Get more sunshine. Studies have found that sunlight exposure and cognitive function are closely linked. As such, you should encourage your clients to get outside for at least 10-30 minutes several times per week.
- Engage in regular exercise. Physical activity has been shown to help alleviate symptoms of depression. Researchers indicate that 20 minutes of exercise, 3 days per week, can significantly reduce symptoms of depression.
- Focus on better sleep. Research shows that people with insomnia have a tenfold higher risk of developing depression, and 75% of people with depression have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Establishing and committing to a regular bedtime routine can help make falling asleep easier.
- Spend time with people. Social activities and spending time with family and friends are natural mood boosters. Even something as simple as eating a meal with someone can have a positive effect.
- Find stress management techniques. Meditation, journaling, reading, and drawing are just a few ways for your clients to manage stress levels and improve their mental health.
TIP: Learn more about other mental health problems in this article.
Studies continue to show a strong correlation between nutrition and depression. If your client is fighting depression, there are a few ways you can help them battle this mental illness. Eating foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals can help boost your client’s mental health, whereas physical activity, sleep, and stress management can also make a difference.
However, if you feel it’s necessary, refer your client to other specialists like psychologists, psychiatrists, or physicians who specialize in behavioral health.
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