Depression: A Psychiatrist Suggests Peanut Butter, Chocolate

A new study shows that certain food types may help relieve depression.

Posted Feb 10, 2017

Pixabay public domain
Source: Pixabay public domain

In a previous post, I recommended five scientifically valid and clinically helpful do-it-yourself techniques to help speed up improvement from depression:

  • Exercise, even if you have the energy for just a few steps.
  • Stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers.
  • Get morning light.
  • Hugs.
  • Use your eyes to decrease the anxiety often accompanying depression

A New Recommendation: Manage the nutrient composition of your diet  

A recent scientific article reports results from the first diet intervention study done with the necessary rigorous methodology. (Diet here means food composition, not amount. Weight loss was not a goal.) They assigned depressed people randomly to one of two groups: diet modification or an alternate procedure. They then compared the mood improvements of the two groups.

Who was in the study? The subjects had moderate to severe depression. In addition, their diet contained a lot of sugar, processed meats and salty snacks, with few fruits and vegetables. If they were already receiving medication and/or psychotherapy, they continued with these treatments.

What was the intervention? It was not complicated or unusual. The dietary intervention subjects met regularly with a dietician and were encouraged to eat foods consistent with the Mediterranean diet: primarily fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean red meats and fish, low-fat dairy products, eggs, nuts, legumes and olive oil. Limiting fried foods, processed meats, sweets and alcohol was recommended. The control/comparison group subjects also met regularly with trained personnel, but no diet advice counseling was given. Instead, they had the social support of an interested professional person talking with them about neutral topics (sports, news, music) of interest to the participant.

What were the results? After three months, a shift to a Mediterranean diet was seen only in the diet-counseled group. Depression symptoms declined much more in the diet-change group compared to the comparison group. Many more in the diet-change group met the criteria indicating a full remission of depression.  

Why would this diet change help improve depression?

While much still remains to be learned, there are scientifically valid reasons to explain the results. We know that lipids are a major component of neuron structure. For this reason, eliminating all fats is never a good idea. Eating the good lipids specified in the Mediterranean diet provides what’s needed for neuronal anatomy—while being good  for our general health as well.

Also, the types of bacteria in the gut affect the increasingly-understood gut-brain connection, and the types of bacteria present are influenced by nutrient intake. Nutrients also affect other factors thought to have a negative role in depression, such as inflammation and oxidative stress

Peanut Butter and Dark Chocolate

While additional research with even more participants are needed to further validate this new study, there is enough good science here to green-light adding the recommended foods.

For example: why not enjoy a lunch of peanut butter and a little low-sugar jam on multigrain bread, followed by a one-ounce piece of dark chocolate? The peanuts (legume), reduced sugar and grain bread follow the Mediterranean-like diet.  Although not a part of that food plan, dark chocolate contains chemicals known to increase feelings of alertness and pleasure, as well as having a good amount of antioxidants to counter oxidative stress.

Food and eating are major sources of pleasure, and stimulation of the pleasure centers is important in treating depression. So, choose foods that maximize effective nutrients AND provide a pleasurable kick at the same time.


Jacka FN et al (2017) A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial),  BMC Medicine 15:23