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Depression affects many people, and it can be life changing. Medical treatment and counseling can often help relieve symptoms, but lifestyle remedies, such as a healthful diet, can also boost a person’s well-being.
There is no specific diet to treat depression, but eating more of some foods and less or none of others can help some people manage their symptoms.
In this article, we look at some foods and nutrients that may be beneficial and some that people should avoid.
Many nutrients are available to purchase, but people should ask their doctor’s advice before using any supplements, as they can sometimes interfere with other medications.
One factor that may contribute to depression is a person’s dietary habits, which will determine the nutrients that they consume.
A 2017 study found that the symptoms of people with moderate-to-severe depression improved when they received nutritional counseling sessions and ate a more healthful diet for 12 weeks.
The improved diet focused on fresh and whole foods that are high in nutrients. It also limited processed refined foods, sweets, and fried food, including junk food.
Depressive symptoms, including mood and anxiety, improved enough to achieve remission criteria in more than 32% of the participants.
The researchers concluded that people could help manage or improve their symptoms of depression by addressing their diet.
Selenium is present in a variety of foods, including:
- whole grains
- Brazil nuts
- some seafood
- organ meats, such as liver
Supplements are available for purchase in health food shops.
People obtain most of their vitamin D through sun exposure, but dietary sources are also important.
Foods that can provide vitamin D include:
- oily fish
- fortified dairy products
- beef liver
Supplements are also available for purchase in health food shops and pharmacies.
The results of some studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids might help with depressive disorders.
However, the authors of a 2015 review concluded that more studies are necessary to confirm this.
Eating omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of mood disorders and brain diseases by enhancing brain function and preserving the myelin sheath that protects nerve cells.
Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:
- cold-water fish, such as salmon, sardines, tuna, and mackerel
- flaxseed, flaxseed oil, and chia seeds
Omega-3 supplements are also available in health food shops and pharmacies.
Antioxidants help remove free radicals, which are the waste products of natural bodily processes that can build up in the body.
If the body cannot eliminate enough free radicals, oxidative stress can develop. A number of health problems can result, which may include anxiety and depression.
The results of a 2012 study suggested that consuming the vitamins that provide antioxidants may reduce symptoms of anxiety in people with generalized anxiety disorder.
Fresh, plant based foods, such as berries, are good sources of antioxidants. A diet that is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, soy, and other plant products may help reduce the stress-related symptoms of depression.
Click here to learn more about which foods contain antioxidants.
Sources of vitamin B-12 include:
- some fortified cereals
Foods that contain folate include:
- dark leafy vegetables
- fruit and fruit juices
- whole grains
- dairy products
- meat and poultry
Zinc helps the body perceive taste, but it also boosts the immune system and may influence depression.
Zinc is present in:
- whole grains
- beef, chicken, and pork
- nuts and pumpkin seeds
Supplements are also available in health food stores and pharmacies.
Learn more about the health benefits of zinc here.
Protein enables the body to grow and repair, but it may also help people with depression.
The body uses a protein called tryptophan to create serotonin, the “feel good” hormone.
Tryptophan is present in:
Serotonin appears to play a role in depression, but the mechanism is complex, and exactly how it works remains unclear. However, eating foods that may boost serotonin levels might be beneficial.
Learn more about tryptophan and which foods contain it.
Foods such as yogurt and kefir may boost the levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Healthy gut microbiota may reduce the symptoms and risk of depression, according to a 2016 meta-analysis. The researchers suggested that Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium may help.
Learn more about probiotics here.
Obesity appears to raise the risk of depression.
This increased risk may be due to the hormonal and immunological changes that occur in people with obesity.
A person who is overweight or has obesity may wish to consult their doctor or a dietitian about ways to manage their weight.
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, which health authorities recommend, can help reduce blood pressure and improve overall health.
There is also evidence that it can help with weight loss and may reduce the risk of depression.
Learn more here about the DASH diet.
Some foods may aggravate the symptoms of depression.
Regularly consuming large amounts of alcohol can lead to further complications, such as accidents, family issues, loss of employment, and ill health.
Even those who limit their alcohol consumption to no more than one drink a day have a higher risk of some types of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Poor health, in turn, can lead to further depression.
Convenience foods, such as fast food and junk food, can be high in calories and low in nutrients.
Studies have suggested that people who consume lots of fast food are more likely to have depression than those who eat mostly fresh produce.
Processed foods, especially those high in sugar and refined carbs, may contribute to a higher risk of depression. When a person eats refined carbs, the body’s energy levels increase rapidly but then crash. A bar of chocolate may give an instant boost, but a rapid low can follow.
It is best to opt for fresh, nutrient dense, whole foods that provide a steady source of energy over time.
Fats to avoid include:
- trans fats, which are present in many processed foods
- fats in red and processed meats
- safflower and corn oil, which are high in omega-6 fatty acids
Learn more here about healthful and unhealthful fats.
At least one study has found that a moderate intake of caffeine, in the form of coffee, may benefit people with depression. Caffeine’s benefits could be due to its stimulant effect and antioxidants properties.
Caffeine is present in:
- energy drinks
There is some evidence that small amounts of caffeine may reduce anxiety and boost mood. However, some research has found that it may increase feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression in children of high school age.
In addition, caffeine can affect a person’s ability to sleep.
While caffeine may benefit some people, it is best to:
- consume it only in moderation
- avoid products with a high caffeine content, such as energy drinks
- avoid caffeine after midday
Find out more about how caffeine can affect depression.
Diet may play a role in depression. Following a diet that is low in processed foods and provides plenty of fresh, plant-based foods and healthful fats may help improve symptoms.
Other tips that may help include:
- getting at least 150 minutes of physical exercise each week
- spending time outdoors
- avoiding the use of alcohol and other substances
- getting 7–8 hours of sleep in every 24 hours
A doctor can often recommend suitable treatments to help people manage the symptoms of depression, and these may include adopting a more healthful diet.