The link between nutrition and depression

350 million people.

Let me say that again. 350 million people.
The number of people thought to be suffering from depression worldwide.

I asked a group of people at uni to raise their hand if they knew someone with depression. Everyone raised their hands.

Depression and other mental health issues are all around us. Even though there’s a lot that remains unknown, we are learning more and more. We know that exercise, social networks, stress and even food can impact our mental health. But the nutrition student in me asks…

How much can food influence our mental health?

Let’s get a bit sciency

Depression is associated with lower levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor. This neurotrophic factor is crucial in brain and neurotransmitter (chemical signal) development.

Proinflammatory cytokines (immune system chemicals) cause neurotrophic factor levels to drop. That’s bad. But the good news is our diet can decrease the amount of proinflammatory cytokines. This mean more neurotrophic factor and better mental health.

So there is a link, but what food?

Different types of diets were examined to find a link between diet and depression. The Mediterranean style diet which includes olive oil, lots of fish, fruit and veggies and not much red meat, examined the profile of fats (the good kind!). Another study assessed the consumption of fast-food and commercial baked goods in saturated fat (the bad kind) and refined sugar intake.

These studies concluded that a diet high in saturated fatty acids lead to increased levels of proinflammatory cytokines. The high intake of fast food and commercially baked goods lead to an estimated increased risk of depression of around 30%. They also concluded that omega-3 levels were strongly associated with lower risk of depression.

Folate, one of the B vitamins, also plays a role in mental health. Folate can be found in green leafy vegetables (spinach and broccoli), fruits (strawberries and oranges) and legumes (chickpeas and lentils).

The verdict.

Yes, there is a link between diet and mental health. In fact, dietary patterns are likely to be a major determinant of depression. Even one study suggesting that eating large amounts of fruit and vegetables can make you happier.

But isn’t this great?! Eating more plant based foods, cutting out the rubbish and eating more fish is not only good for our physical health but our mental health too!

If you’re taking anti-depression medication, that medication is working to increase your brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Do not ditch that medication. Food is good, but if you already have depression, food alone won’t cure it.  But food can help increase the effectiveness of those medications.

Nutrition is just one piece of the puzzle. Eat well and don’t forget exercise, social networks and stress. Remember to take care of yourself.

But it isn’t always that easy. Depression is hard.
Don’t forget to ask someone, R U OKAY? and listen.

References and Further Reading

Bocchio-Chiavetto, L, Vincenzo, B, Zanardini, R, Molteni, R, Nielsen, MG, Placentino, A, Giovannini, C, Luciana, R, Ventriglia, M, Riva, MA, Gennarelli, M 2010, ‘Serum and plasma BDNF levels in major depression: a replication study and meta-analyses’, The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 763-773.

Folate Facts by Dietitians Association of Australia

Key to Happiness is Eating more Fruits and Veg by ABC and UQ

Jacka, F, Kremer, P, Berk, M, de Silva-Sanigorski, A, Moodie, M, Leslie, E, Pasco, J, Swinburn, B 2011, ‘A prospective study of diet quality and mental health in adolescents’, PLoS One, vol. 6, no. 9, pp. 1-7.

Nutrition Issues in Mood Anxiety Disorder

Sanchez-Villegas, A & Martinez-Gonzalez, MA 2013, ‘Diet, a new target to prevent depression?’, BioMed Central, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 1-4.

Sanchez-Villegas, A, Toledo, E, de Irala, J, Ruiz-Canela, M, Pla-Vidal, J, Martinez-Gonzalez, MA 2011, ‘Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression’, Public Health Nutrition, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 424-432.

Sanchez-Villegas, A, Verberne, L, Irala, JD, Ruiz-Canela, M, Toledo, E, Serra-Majem, L, Martinez-Gonzalez, MA 2011, ‘Dietary fat intake and the risk of depression: the sun project’, PloS One, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 1-7.

World Health Organisation, 2012, Depression, accessed 9/9/2015,

Cover Photo: Paint it Black by Erin

3 thoughts on “The link between nutrition and depression

  1. Outstanding information! It’s true that nutrition is just one piece of the puzzle, but it is often the one that is overlooked when it comes to mental health. Many forget about the mind & body connection.

    Liked by 1 person

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