When we’re sitting down to eat a meal, most of us don’t think about how food could affect our mental health. But more research is showing the connection between what we eat and depression, and new research has validated this.
Using a first-of-its-kind ‘Risk Index for Depression’ to assess how different behaviours affect the risk of depression, the research found that our diet is the most important contributor to mental health, followed by other factors like sleep and exercise.
The research confirms that depression is not caused by one simple factor or event, but rather various factors which, if identified for each young person, could help clinicians recognise the early signs of depression. In other words, the Risk Index for Depression is about prevention.
Foods to Avoid if You Have Depression
You don’t have to be officially diagnosed (many people aren’t, anyway) to know what an overwhelming burden it can be when you are even marginally anxious or depressed. Your best move is to familiarize yourself with some of the foods that have been repeatedly linked with doing more damage to your psyche—and then drastically reduce your consumption of them.
A 2015 study of postmenopausal women demonstrated that an increase in added sugars in their diet was associated with an increased likelihood of depression.
In a study published the journal Diabetologia, researchers have found that when blood glucose levels are elevated, levels of a protein that encourages the growth of neurons and synapses drops. In other words, the simple act of eating sugar makes your brain work at a suboptimal level—and the more you do it, the greater your risk of depression and the greater your risk of diabetes and dementia, too.
In recent years, simple carbs have been vilified for their fat-promoting, nutrient-lacking qualities. Recently, researchers at Columbia University decided to see if having refined carbohydrates in your diet can make you depressed. The answer is yes.
Using data from the Women’s Health Initiative—which is tracking more than 70,000 women—the researchers found that the higher a woman’s blood sugar rose after eating sugar and refined grains, the higher her risk of depression.
There are plenty of experts who will tell you that even a modest amount of caffeine can contribute to depression—and at least one study has found that, among healthy college students, moderate and high coffee drinkers scored higher on a depression scale than others.
The reason most experts cite is caffeine’s disruptive effect on sleep. Coffee and black tea make it more difficult to fall asleep and to stay asleep. Sleep is connected to mood and disturbed sleep can seriously mess with your mental state. The one drink to avoid at all costs if you plan on going to bed any time in the next 24 hours? Energy drinks. Some types have the caffeine equivalent of 14 cans of soda.
So, sugar is bad. The fake stuff like diet coke with fewer calories must be better, right? Not so much, particularly if you already have depression. In one study, researchers at the University of Northwestern Ohio looked at the effect of aspartame (an artificial sweetener) on people with a history of depression and found that it significantly worsened symptoms.
In fact, those symptoms got so bad that the study had to be stopped—some study participants actually developed suicidal thoughts. While aspartame did not cause depression in non-depressed study participants, there is some evidence that the artificial sweetener significantly reduces serotonin levels—the “happy” hormone—in the brain.
We’ve all read the news that consuming olive oil can lower the risk of a number of health conditions, including heart disease and depression. What you may not realize, however, is that consuming artery-clogging trans fats can increase your risk of depression by as much as 48%, according to a study published in PLOS ONE.