The sugar-laden, high-fat foods we often crave when we are stressed or depressed, as comforting as they are, may be the least likely to benefit our mental health.
As people across the globe grappled with higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety this past year, many turned to their favorite comfort foods: ice cream, pastries, pizza, hamburgers. But studies in recent years suggest that the sugar-laden and high-fat foods we often crave when we are stressed or depressed, as comforting as they may seem, are the least likely to benefit our mental health. Instead, whole foods such as vegetables, fruit, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes and fermented foods like yogurt may be a better bet.
The findings stem from an emerging field of research known as nutritional psychiatry, which looks at the relationship between diet and mental wellness. The idea that eating certain foods could promote brain health, much the way it can promote heart health, might seem like common sense. But historically, nutrition research has focused largely on how the foods we eat affect our physical health, rather than our mental health. For a long time, the potential influence of food on happiness and mental well-being, as one team of researchers recently put it, was “virtually ignored.”
Large observational studies, however, can show only correlations, not causation, which raises the question: Which comes first? Do anxiety and depression drive people to choose unhealthy foods, or vice versa? Are people who are happy and optimistic more motivated to consume nutritious foods? Or does a healthy diet directly brighten their moods?
The first major trial to shed light on the food-mood connection was published in 2017. A team of researchers wanted to know whether dietary changes would help alleviate depression, so they recruited 67 people who were clinically depressed and split them into groups. One group went to meetings with a dietitian who taught them to follow a traditional Mediterranean-style diet. The other group, serving as the control, met regularly with a research assistant who provided social support but no dietary advice.
“Eating a salad is not going to cure depression. But there’s a lot you can do to lift your mood and improve your mental health, and it can be as simple as increasing your intake of plants and healthy foods.”