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Mary E. Pritchard Ph.D.


3 Ways to Balance Your Food and Your Mood

The best ways to eat to stave off depression.

Aspen Photo/Shutterstock
Source: Aspen Photo/Shutterstock

Women are nearly twice as likely as men to develop depression. They have a 12 to 13 percent lifetime prevalence rate for depression, meaning more than 10 million women may suffer from it each year.

Although depression can occur at any age, it's most common in women between the ages of 40 and 59—and as many as 23 percent of women in their 40s and 50s currently take an anti-depressant. As we know from previous posts about depression, it has long been known to relate to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders; women in their perimenopausal years may be especially vulnerable to depression, body image dissatisfaction, and eating disorders.

What can you do about depression? Your first priority should be to taking care of yourself. If you suspect you may have a clinically diagnosable condition, please seek proper diagnosis and treatment from a professional.

If you are experiencing a depressed mood, it may be the result of many things, but it is often a sign that your needs are not being met, and that it’s time to turn inward for a while.

I have three recommendations:

1. Make self-care a priority.

I’m not talking about an occasional massage or an annual vacation. “[Self-care is] choosing to make sure that you get what you need on all levels—physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally—every day,” Christine Arylo says. That’s right: Self-care means taking care of yourself every single day. I now: You’re busy. Who isn’t? But you need to carve time out of your schedule for yourself each day.

Think of your emotions and energy level like a gas tank. It’s an easy way to visualize where you are. Start your day by checking your energy tank. Simply ask yourself: “Where is my energy level today?” or “Where am I emotionally right now?” Let your intuition tell you whether you’re full or running on empty. If you feel below 75 percent, which is likely if you are feeling depressed, ask yourself, “What do I need today to raise my energy level?” and then take action, or make a plan to do so later in the day. And keep periodically checking throughout the day to see where you’re at and what you need.

2. Re-evaluate your food choices.

Depression has long been linked to low-carbohydrate and low-calorie diets. Low-carb dieters tend to become depressed about two weeks into such a diet, about the time that their levels of serotonin (the "feel-good" neurotransmitter) have dropped due to decreased carbohydrate intake. Low-carb dieters also report that they feel chronically tired, angry, depressed, or tense. This is why nutritionists recommend that 55 percent to 65 percent of our daily calories should be carbs. So make sure you’re getting complex carbohydrates in the form of whole grains. Complex carbohydrates, which are high in fiber, and whole grains increase our level of tryptophan. Tryptophan is converted to serotonin, which elevates mood, suppresses appetite, and calms you down. However, too many carbohydrates can make you sleepy. (And no, cookies and cake don’t count; those are simple carbs.)

Foods high in protein like fish, poultry, meat, eggs, legumes, cheese, milk, or tofu contain the amino acid tyrosine. Tyrosine increases the production of dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. These neurotransmitters increase your alertness and energy. Also, whey protein, which is found in milk, is touted as a stress antidote. It can improve mood and enhance memory.

Omega-3 fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, as well as ground flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil, and omega-3-fortified foods improve memory and mood. People with chronically low levels of omega-3 fatty acids report more depression, pessimism, and impulsivity. But you only need 20 to 30 percent of your daily calories to come from fats—and not all fats are created equal. Greasy choices high in saturated fat (e.g., burgers and fries) can foster depression and even dementia. In addition, one large, high-fat meal will almost instantly make you feel fatigued, due to the energy required to digest fat.

Also make sure you are eating a variety of whole foods containing selenium (Brazil nuts, tuna, sunflower seeds, whole grain cereals, swordfish), iron (red meat, egg yolks, dried fruit, beans, liver, artichokes), thiamine (cereal grains, pork, yeast, cauliflower, eggs), folic acid (green veggies, oranges, grapefruit, nuts, sprouts, whole-wheat bread, legumes), and B-12 (lean and low-fat animal products).

Now let’s talk about foods that don’t boost your mood. Too much caffeine leads to anxiety, nervousness, and mood swings. And, because the caffeine buzz only last an hour, fatigue sets in pretty quickly once it starts to wear off. Remember to opt for green tea or decaf, and stick to one or two cups daily to get the good mood benefits and avoid the negative effects. Another benefit of green tea is that it contains an amino acid called theanine. This antioxidant powerhouse fights depression and combats stress.

3. Get enough sleep and exercise.

Working out temporarily boosts the feel-good chemicals known as endorphins. You don’t need to run marathons to reap the benefits; just walking or doing yoga a few times a week can help. Exercise is more effective in treating depression than light therapy, and can be as effective as therapy or prescription drugs. If you are vulnerable to depression or seasonal affective disorder, exercise should be one of your mainstays.

And while lack of sleep may not cause depression, it certainly plays a role. Lack of sleep interferes with our ability to process emotions, especially negative emotions, so lack of sleep can make depression worse. To ensure that you get enough sleep, make changes to your lifestyle: Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Try not to nap unless you have to. And take distractions out of your bedroom—no computer and no TV. In time, you may find that your sleep and mood improve.

LinkedIn Image Credit: Lucky Business/Shutterstock


About the Author

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.