People often say that when they eat better, they feel better. This is sometimes chalked up to the placebo effect, boosted by the typical increases in energy and general self-esteem that happen when someone transitions to a healthier lifestyle.
The idea that food actually impacts mental health in a meaningful way is often dismissed or ignored. After all, when we learn about nutrition, there is an emphasis on the way food impacts our bodies, but not our minds.
As it turns out, the foods we eat may have a much stronger impact on mental health than we realize. Researchers have found evidence that certain foods are linked to mental disorders. These inflammatory foods correlate with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, among other mental health issues.
Avoiding inflammatory foods in your diet, and incorporating anti-inflammatory foods, could be an essential missing piece of your fight against depression.
Inflammatory diets: the worst for depression
Research has found that inflammatory diets are correlated with an increased rate of depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Studies on this topic haven’t yet been able to establish causation, but the numbers of a recent study in China are stunning: a 25 percent increase in depression and an 85 percent increase in schizophrenia was seen amongst people with an inflammatory diet.
Other studies across the globe have found similar results, even after controlling for factors like age, sex, BMI, smoking habits, early-life trauma, socioeconomic status, and genetics. The association between depression and inflammatory diets is clear, and it is strong.
What makes a diet inflammatory?
Inflammatory foods are foods that cause inflammation in the digestive tract. When you eat these foods, some of the bacteria in your gut react by inflaming and eroding the gut lining. This allows toxins and bacteria into the bloodstream. While these microbes may be beneficial inside your stomach and large intestine, they can be very harmful in the rest of your body.
The bacteria and toxins make their way through your bloodstream up to the brain, and are then able to pass into the brain itself. This triggers the immune system to fight them off, and the ensuing immune response can cause collateral damage inside the brain itself.
This is how the connection is built between food and brain health. The damage done by the immune system is what may cause increased depression rates. In order to prevent this process from happening, inflammatory foods should be avoided, which will keep the gut lining intact and keep bacteria and toxins where they belong.
What foods are inflammatory?
Our favorite comfort foods and sweet treats tend to be the worst for our health. Unfortunately, this extends to mental health. Inflammatory foods that may increase your depression include:
- Sweets. Whether it’s candy, chocolates, ice cream, or cake, your favorite sugar-packed foods will trigger the bacteria in your digestive tract to start eroding the lining of your gut.
- Refined carbs. Though they may not taste as sweet as candy, refined carbs like white bread and pasta still elevate your blood sugar quickly, having the same impact as your sweetest treats.
- Red and processed meats. Both of these kinds of meat are high in saturated fat, another substance that causes inflammation, and not just in the gut. The inflammation caused by higher intakes of these meats can also lead to heart disease.
- Alcohol. It doesn’t matter if it’s beer, wine, or liquor — if it’s alcohol, it will cause inflammation, allowing bacteria and toxins to escape the gut and enter the body.
- Hydrogenated trans fats. While artificial trans fats are banned in the United States, trans fats have still snuck their way into our foods, from vegetable oil to french fries — in fact, most fried and fast foods have trans fats.
In addition to their inflammatory properties, there are other reasons why these foods can worsen your mental health. They are more likely to lead to obesity, a condition which increases your likelihood of depression. The crashes that follow sugar highs also leave you tired and irritable. Not to mention, alcohol itself is actually a depressant.
To be clear — nobody is saying you can never hit up the McDonald’s drive-through again! But you should stay aware of how often you are eating these kinds of inflammatory foods, and lessen your intake if necessary.
Healthy food, healthy mind
Considering that inflammatory foods can worsen your depression, it may come as no surprise that the foods which can help improve your mood and function are anti-inflammatory. This includes:
- High-fiber foods. Fruits and veggies are the best for delivering fiber. From juicy strawberries to fatty avocados to crunchy broccoli, there is an abundance of yummy, fiber-full foods out there for you.
- Leafy greens. You know the drill: kale, spinach, chard, brussels sprouts, asparagus. They all contain vitamin E, a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. Throw some kale in your smoothie, some spinach in your omelette, or some asparagus on the side of your dinner for a quick and easy vitamin E boost.
- Fish. Fatty fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to lower rates of major depressive disorder in individuals and even across societies. This might be due to their anti-inflammatory properties, which also benefit your heart health.
- Berries. In a smoothie, in a fruit salad, in a regular salad, in your cereal, or just on their own — there’s no wrong way to eat strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries, which contain anti-inflammatory antioxidants called anthocyanins.
- Fermented foods. We know what you’re thinking — we just told you that alcohol isn’t good for your gut! But alcohol is an exception to the rule that fermented foods are anti-inflammatory. Enjoy some kombucha, kimchi, yogurt, or sauerkraut today. Your gut and your brain will thank you for it.
In addition to these anti-inflammatory foods, it is important to keep track of your daily vitamin and mineral intake. Certain vitamins and minerals may be essential for maintaining a healthy mindset.
For example, low vitamin D levels are associated with higher depression rates, as well as low folate levels in men and low vitamin B12 levels in women. You can get these important vitamins and minerals from beans and legumes, dark green vegetables, fish, and many fruits.
We’ve always known that diet is an important part of overall health, and now we know that this extends to mental health, too. Inflammatory diets show shockingly high correlations with depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. This may be due to toxins escaping from an inflamed gut and entering the brain.
Replacing sugary, fatty, processed foods with fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins can improve more than just your physical health. An anti-inflammatory diet could be an important part of your daily lifestyle that will help you fight depression and anxiety. After all, you really are what you eat.