Is your diet making you depressed? Which foods to grab for a better mood

The role of eating is so vast in the modern lifestyle that the decision of what to eat is more complex than simply satisfying hunger. Your food choices influence your risk of disease, weight management, and athletic performance, as well as significantly impact your mental health.

The right food choices can give you more energy, increase productivity, and boost your mood, while the wrong ones can leave you stressed and depressed.

Ongoing research is finding that the typical American diet—rich in processed foods, high in sugar and saturated fat, and low in whole, fresh foods—contributes to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and tension. These mental health states are known to diminish energy, contribute to weight gain and raise the risk of disease. And the most recent studies are finding that the effects of these eating habits on mood can impact a broad range of age groups and life stages.

A September 2015 study published in the journal of Clinical Endocrinology found that adolescent men experienced lower levels of testosterone within an hour of consuming a glucose and protein beverage. In previous studies, this has been observed in adult males as well. Low levels of testosterone are known to contribute to depression and irritability, meaning even one daily soda or a glass of orange juice with breakfast can mess with your mood and your health long term. Similar results were found among postmenopausal women in a June 2015 analysis, when women who consumed a diet with a high glycemic load—foods that raise blood glucose levels—were more likely to experience depression than those who chose low-GI foods.

High-GI foods are sugary foods, pastas, white rice and breads—foods that can cause spikes and crashes in your blood sugar levels. High-GI foods contribute to cravings and have low satiety factor. Low-GI foods, generally below 50 on the glycemic index, are rich in fiber to promote feeling fuller longer and do not induce substantial fluctuations in your blood sugar levels.

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What should you eat to protect your health and state of mind?

Skip pasta dishes and reach for quinoa, which will give you protein for more energy and fiber to improve satiety. Getting white potatoes out of your diet is simple as well, substitute sweet potatoes or try cauliflower “mashed potatoes,” a mainstay of popular paleo diets. Cruciferous vegetables, like cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts are rich in antioxidants that are known to reduce the risk of a number of diseases. And, these vegetables are rich in key nutrients that support energy production and help maintain steady blood sugar levels.

Many people turn to artificial sweeteners to avoid sugar, but even these can drive down your mood and tank your energy, while increasing your risk of disease. Strive to find natural, non-sugary alternatives to your favorite beverages and desserts. Still or sparkling water flavored with fresh cucumber, mint, citrus fruits, or berries can be refreshing. Herbal teas can enhance your antioxidant intake, increase your metabolism, and help detox the body; especially green, white, and red teas. Even plain, black coffee is shown to reduce diabetes risk.

Fruits are known as “nature’s candy.” Instead of reaching for a candy bar or cookie, pack fresh grapes, strawberries, or raspberries for a post-meal dessert. You will find that these fruits have a rich sweetness when sugar and artificial sweeteners are not a regular part of your diet.

Previous studies have found that diets high in saturated fat can contribute to suppression of dopamine, a “feel-good” chemical messenger in the brain. Giving up fats all together isn’t a good idea. Fats are a strong part of the flavor in each meal and improve satiety. Not to mention a 2007 study found that a low fat diet is linked to increased tension and anxiety. Strive for balance when it comes to fats—eat more unsaturated fats. Enrich the flavor of your whole foods diet with nuts, avocado, and olive oil. Choose fish over red meat. All of these options will also increase your intake of omega-3s, which are known to promote brain and heart health, and boost metabolism.

It can be tempting to run through the drive-thru or grab boxed meals with a busy lifestyle, but taking the time to make these changes can make a big difference in how you feel and, better yet, the benefits extend well beyond improving your mood and lowering disease risk. With the right food choices daily, you can more easily manage your weight, increase productivity at work or school, and enjoy more energy for exercise, family and friends.