Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/21/2021
Depression is a serious mental illness that can affect your mood, feelings and the way you live your life.
A variety of factors play a role in depression, from your genetics to your habits. One factor that’s often forgotten about is your diet.
When you’re depressed, it’s common to make changes to your eating habits. You might feel less hungry than normal and reduce your food intake, or feel hungrier than normal and turn to food to help you cope with your symptoms. (Hello, salty chips.)
The food that you eat can have a surprising impact on your symptoms — meaning it’s important to prioritize the right food choices if you’re dealing with depression.
Below, we’ve shared foods that are linked to improvements in depression symptoms and mental health.
We’ve also discussed which foods you should try to avoid in your healthy diet if you’re feeling depressed.
Finally, we’ve discussed what you should do if you’re feeling depressed and want to reach out to a mental health professional for assistance. Know that help is available.
While food alone is unlikely to treat clinical depression, research shows that some foods appear to have mood-boosting effects.
Making these foods your dietary priorities can potentially help reduce your depression symptoms, helping you make progress toward recovery.
Fish, and especially cold-water fatty fish, is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that are linked to better heart function.
In addition to improving your heart health, there’s some evidence that eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help improve brain function and fight the symptoms of depression (and other forms of mental illness).
In a review of three studies, researchers found that omega-3 fatty acids were more effective at improving the symptoms of depression than a non-therapeutic placebo.
A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, which covered data from more than 150 thousand participants, also found a direct link between fish consumption and lower rates of depression.
While most fish contain at least some omega-3 fatty acids, cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel and tuna have the highest omega-3 content.
Try adding these fish to your diet as a healthier replacement for red meat, processed meats and other common protein sources.
Beans are an excellent natural source of protein, carbohydrates and fiber. They also have a low glycemic index (GI) value, meaning they cause you to feel full for a long period of time while having only a mild impact on your blood sugar levels.
This is important because variation in blood sugar levels — for example, rapid changes from low to high blood sugar — appears to be associated with negative moods in some people.
Because of their minor impact on blood sugar, beans are also excellent for reducing your risk of developing diabetes, which is linked to a higher risk of developing depression.
Try adding chickpeas (garbanzo beans), kidney beans, black beans or pinto beans to your diet for extra fiber and slower-acting carbohydrates.
Many nuts are excellent dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which help to promote optimal heart health and may help in treating the symptoms of depression.
Nuts are also good sources of protein, carbohydrates and fiber.
While most nuts make for great additions to your diet, walnuts appear to be particularly good at treating depression.
In a study published in the journal Nutrients, researchers found that people who reported eating walnuts often showed lower levels of depression than their peers. Other types of nuts were also associated with reduced levels of depression.
In addition to walnuts, other nuts such as almonds, cashews, pistachios, peanuts and hazelnuts are all rich in nutrients and worth incorporating into your diet.
Leafy green vegetables have countless health benefits, from supporting your immune system to aiding in digestion.
They’re also rich in folate, or vitamin B9 — a vitamin that’s often low in people affected by depression.
Since vegetables are packed with fiber, they’re also fantastic for keeping your blood sugar levels steady throughout the day, which may help stabilize your moods.
Beyond helping to fight depression, research suggests that maintaining a steady intake of green vegetables throughout life may help to slow the cognitive decline that often occurs as people get older.
Good leafy vegetables to eat include kale, collard greens, spinach, cabbage, swiss chard, beet greens, watercress and bok choy.
Many of these ingredients are easy to add to other meals as sides, incorporate into a salad or blend into a healthy smoothie.
Seeds are rich in nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids and amino acids that promote deeper sleep and relaxation.
Try adding flaxseeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds to your diet to boost your intake of omega-3 fats. Seeds are easy to add to your diet as a quick snack, sprinkled over cereal or as part of an early-morning smoothie.
In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, many seeds are rich sources of tryptophan — an amino acid that may help improve your mood and reduce the severity of depression.
Tryptophan’s effects on mood and depression symptoms may be because of its key role in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and feelings. Tryptophan is the sole precursor of serotonin in the body.
You can find tryptophan in almost all common seeds, including chia seeds, pumpkin seeds and soy seeds.
In addition to fish, seeds, nuts and beans, it’s important to take in protein from a wide variety of lean, healthy sources.
Protein is essential for maintaining your body. It’s used to create new cells, repair existing ones and ensure you’re strong and physically capable.
Interestingly, research suggests that protein may play a role in depression. In a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that people with high levels of protein intake were less likely than their peers to experience depressive disorder symptoms.
You can increase your protein intake by taking in more chicken, turkey, eggs, dairy, seafood and red meat, such as beef and lamb. When it comes to red meat, try to prioritize healthier, lean cuts; think low-fat ground beef or fillet rather than ribeye and brisket.
Creating a diet that fights depression isn’t just about prioritizing the right foods — it’s also about eliminating the wrong ones.
While some foods are linked to improvements in your mental health, others can have a negative impact on your moods, feelings and cognitive function. Many of these foods can also affect your physical health and wellbeing.
Try to either avoid the following foods and beverages entirely or moderate your consumption so that they’re never a major part of your diet.
While beans, whole grains and other complex carbohydrates are great additions to a depression-fighting diet, simple carbohydrates like sugar are best avoided.
The reason is that simple carbohydrates can contribute to sudden increases in your blood sugar that may affect your moods. You might suddenly feel energized, only to crash later and deal with fatigue and frustration.
While it’s okay to enjoy sugary foods now and then, try to limit your total sugar intake and avoid making simple sugars a major part of your diet.
While it’s not a food per se, alcohol is something that should generally be avoided when you feel depressed.
Although alcohol may help you to feel better in the short term, over the long term, alcohol use — and especially alcohol abuse — is linked with depression. Alcoholic drinks can also interact with many medications used to treat depression, including common antidepressants.
If you’re feeling depressed, or if you’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression, it’s best to put off drinking until you’re feeling better.
While changing your diet may provide relief from your depression symptoms, it’s always best to reach out to a mental health provider if you’re feeling depressed.
Reaching out for expert help is particularly important if you have severe or persistent depressive symptoms that just don’t seem to improve on their own.
You can get help by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral, by contacting a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health provider in your area, or by asking a friend or family member to help you get professional help. We have a quick guide on how to find a therapist.
You can also connect with a licensed psychiatry provider from home and receive depression treatment online.
If you have depression, your healthcare provider may recommend using antidepressants, taking part in therapy or a combination of different depression treatment methods.
Antidepressants are medications that manage depression by adjusting the levels of chemicals in your brain and body. They’re often effective, but it may take several weeks before you’re able to feel any improvements.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, involves working with a mental health provider to deal with your depression symptoms.
In therapy, you may learn strategies to help you identify and change the thoughts and behaviors that cause you to feel depressed.
A large range of factors can contribute to your risk of depression, from your genes to your stress levels — and even your diet.
If you’re feeling depressed, making changes to the way you eat may help reduce the severity of your symptoms and help you maintain a balanced mood.
However, diet alone shouldn’t be viewed as a simple treatment for depression.
If you’re currently feeling depressed, it’s important to reach out for help from a mental health provider and find out about the most effective ways to treat your symptoms and work toward recovery.
You can do this from home using our online mental health services, or by contacting a licensed mental health provider in your area.
You can also check out our free online mental health resources to learn techniques for managing depression, anxiety disorders and other common issues that can affect your mental wellbeing.