These foods can worsen your depression

By Rosemary Black, for MDLinx
Published June 7, 2019

Key Takeaways

If you want to stave off depression, take a look at what you’re eating and consider making some changes for the better. Nutrition experts say that certain foods are not only poor for your health, but are also likely to make you feel depressed. In fact, the authors of a recent study showed that a high-fat diet in obese mice disrupted the signaling pathways of the hypothalamus, which resulted in symptoms of depression.

“Foods high in sugar, salt, and fat have addictive properties and can release the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin,” said Kristi Veltkamp, MS, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist, Spectrum Health, Grand Rapids, MI. “But these feelings don’t last and are typically followed by a ‘crash.’”

How can you avoid this crash, as well as depression? “You need to rewire your brain with healthier ways of eating,” Veltkamp said.

Here are some foods to avoid—and some delicious swaps that may lift your mood.


“Sugar leaves you first feeling very up and then very down,” said Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, creator of and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table.

“People reach for sugar because it’s a carb, and carbs are considered to be the king of comfort. But you may feel badly after you eat something high in sugar,” she said.

Feel-good swap: Enjoy a whole-grain English muffin spread with almond butter and topped with a sliced banana or a bit of jam for sweetness, Taub-Dix suggested. “This can make you feel calm since complex carbs release serotonin gradually into the brain,” she explained. “And the protein from the almond butter boosts alertness.”

Soft drinks

Authors of a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted that, “the consumption of sweetened beverages, refined foods, and pastries has been shown to be associated with an increased risk of depression in longitudinal studies.” But more studies are needed, the authors added.

In the meantime, they concluded: “The results from this study suggest that high-glycemic index [GI] diets could be a risk factor for depression in postmenopausal women. Randomized trials should be undertaken to examine the question of whether diets rich in low-GI foods could serve as treatments and primary preventive measures for depression in postmenopausal women.”

Feel-good swap: For a dose of antioxidants, try an herbal tea, or a regular or carbonated water infused with fruit or herbs, Veltkamp advised. Chilled herbal tea is very refreshing, and pretty, too, when garnished with a lemon or lime wedge.

Fried chicken

In one research study that examined the association between dietary patterns and depression using an overall diet approach, researchers found that, among middle-aged participants, a dietary pattern of processed food (sweetened desserts, fried foods, processed meat, refined grains, and high-fat dairy products) is a risk factor for depression while a whole-food pattern (heavy on vegetables, fruits, and fish) is protective.

So, next time you’re tempted to reach for any product made with hydrogenated fats, put it back on the shelf. “A product made with either partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated fat contains trans fats, which are not good for anyone,” Taub-Dix said. “Look on the label to make sure you’re not buying a product that has trans fats.”

A diet high in refined grains, sugars, red meats, and fat has been shown to increase depression, Veltkamp concurred. “A diet rich in fruits, vegetables whole grains, fish, legumes and nuts is associated with reduced depression and even reduced cognitive impairments,” she said.

Feel-good swap: Try grilled or broiled salmon instead of fried chicken, she recommended. “Vitamin D, derived from fatty fish and natural sunlight, aids in brain development and function,” she explained. “Salmon is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are the building blocks for healthy brain cells.”

Malina Malkani MS, RDN, CDN, media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and creator of the Wholitarian™ Lifestyle, added: “Eating oily fish twice a week is a great rule of thumb that may help meet your needs for the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are essential nutrients that may help reduce some symptoms of depression.”

Chips made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats

In one study, investigators found a “detrimental relationship” between trans fatty acid intake and depression risk. On the bright side, “Weak inverse associations were found for monounsaturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and olive oil,” the authors concluded. “These findings suggest that cardiovascular disease and depression may share some common nutritional determinants related to subtypes of fat intake.”

“Foods that fuel inflammation in the body and may cause depression are those that contain trans fats,” said Shannon Weston, dietitian and certified diabetes educator, UTHealth School of Public Health, Houston, TX. “Foods either fight or fuel inflammation. The idea is to avoid those that cause inflammation and eat those that fight inflammation,” she said. “Very often it’s processed foods that cause inflammation.”

Feel-good swap: Since antioxidants and phytonutrients reduce inflammation, choose foods that are plentiful in them, like many fruits and vegetables, said Veltkamp. One idea: a salad made with spinach, kale, strawberries, and blueberries, in a vinaigrette dressing made with olive oil.

Or, if you want a crunchy snack, have a handful of nuts or seeds. “Studies show selenium can help boost your mood, and it’s found in nuts and seeds,” Taub-Dix said.

Added Veltkamp: “Nuts and seeds are rich in minerals such as calcium, zinc, and magnesium. They also contain fiber, B vitamins, healthy monounsaturated fats, and other phytonutrients.”

Cookies and crackers made with white flour and sugar

“Low-fiber, nutrient-poor diets that include refined white flour, added sugar, and refined oils like corn oil are associated with increased depression,” said Veltkamp. “These foods do not provide the nutrients needed for proper brain function. They also increase inflammation in the body, which can increase depression.”

Feel-good swap: Try a big bowlful of berries. “The phytonutrients in fruits and veggies are brain protective and they also offer an array of other nutrients that help your brain and other neural pathways function properly,” Veltkamp said.

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