9 Worst Foods for Depression

Food and Depression

Depression has been called the silent killer, but certain foods and beverages can be working just as stealthily to worsen the symptoms of this potentially deadly disorder. Research has demonstrated how diet can create negative or positive impacts on mental health. Unfortunately, the typical American diet has been known to exacerbate everything from anxiety to autism. With over 7% of the adult population suffering from depression, it’s important to know which foods can help fight this common disorder—and which to avoid. Here’s a quick look at some of the worst offenders.

With over 7% of the adult population suffering from depression, it’s important to know which foods can help fight this common disorder—and which to avoid. Click To Tweet

9 Foods That Make Depression Worse

1. Vegetable Oils

Common vegetable oils, including canola, corn, safflower, and soy, contain higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which have been associated with inflammation, depressive disorder, memory issues, and a decline in cognitive function, including Alzheimer’s. As a 2007 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found, diets high in omega-6 to omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid ratios may lead to enhanced risk for both depression and inflammatory diseases. The reasons for this may be evolutionary. Research suggests that as early humans evolved, they ate a diet with an almost equal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, but in our industrialized society, omega-6 intake (from foods like vegetable oils) far surpasses omega-3 intake. This significant imbalance means that the brain does not obtain the fuel it needs to function optimally, leading to issues like depression.

2. Trans Fats

Trans fats came under fire in the U.S. after the turn of the millennium, and for good reason. Though the FDA banned trans fats in 2015, giving manufacturers a few years to comply, food labeling can be misleading, as trans fats contain less than 0.5 grams can be expressed as “0 grams.” These fats are found in partially hydrogenated oils—still found in many processed convenience foods, like store-bought baked goods, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, fried foods, margarine, and more. In addition to their well-publicized negative health effects, such as rising levels of “bad cholesterol,” trans fats have also been linked to depressive symptoms. Multiple studies have shown that trans fats cause inflammation and therefore have a negative effect on mental well-being.

3. Alcohol

Though many Americans reach for booze to self-medicate in the face of everything from clinical depression to short-term stresses, alcohol ultimately makes people feel worse, not better. In addition to its dehydrating nature, unpleasant behavioral side effects, and alarming consequences for the brain, alcohol can actually increase depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts. A 2019 report in Alcohol Research noted that psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and mood disorders, commonly co-occur with alcohol use disorder (AUD), with depressive disorders being the most common. What’s more, when both depression and AUD are present, both the symptoms and prognosis are worse—including a greater risk of suicidal behavior.

4. Meat Alternatives

Adopting a vegetarian diet sounds like a good idea for one’s personal health and the health of the planet, but there are potential downsides. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders explained that, among almost 50,000 participants, vegetarians tallied higher depression scores. One of the researchers detailed in Psychology Today several possible reasons for the link, suggesting that depressive symptoms may precede this dietary choice and not the other way around. Regardless, when vegetarians and flexitarians alike decide to replace their former go-to proteins with highly processed meat alternatives, it’s important to scan labels to understand what’s actually inside that protein replacement. Or try filling your plate with whole foods like vegetables, grains, and healthy fats, and, if you must, make meat alternatives an occasional indulgence.

5. High-Glycemic Foods

Eating a diet chock full of foods with a high glycemic index, such as sweetened drinks, processed meats, and processed baked goods, has been linked to a greater risk of depression through various research, including a 2015 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Collecting and analyzing data from almost 70,000 women with no history of mental health disorders (including depression) or substance abuse, they found that those eating a high-glycemic diet, with high levels of refined carbs, had an increased risk of depression. Interestingly, after the study’s 3-year period, researchers concluded that added sugars, not total sugars or total carbohydrates, were strongly associated with the onset of depression.

6. Toxic Fish

Research shows that mercury can contribute to a surprising array of health complications, including neurological, immune, cardiac, reproductive, and even genetic disorders. While fish are often considered healthy choices for their rich omega-3 content, some varieties of fish contain dangerously high levels of mercury, and exposure to heavy metals has been linked to depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism, and lupus, among other health concerns. Here’s a general rule of thumb: The larger the fish, the higher the mercury content, so choose smaller types. Organizations like Seafood Watch and the FDA can help with providing safe recommendations.

7. Artificial Sweeteners

Sugar substitutes may offer up low- and no-calorie alternatives, but they’re often accompanied by their own health-damaging baggage. For example, a 2018 study noted that aspartame (found in brands like NutraSweet and Equal) has been associated with depression, anxiety, irritable moods, insomnia, and a range of other neurophysiological issues. Furthermore, aspartame, as well as saccharine (found in Sweet’N Low) and sucralose (sold as Splenda), can help create high insulin levels, which are associated with a higher risk for depression.

8. Gluten

While sensitivities to gluten, including celiac disease, have been tied to mood disorders, studies show that nixing gluten can offer mental health benefits for individuals with these concerns. Research in Psychiatric Quarterly has linked these sensitivities to depression, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, ADHD, and other issues. However, a 2018 review of 13 studies on gluten and mood symptoms found that adopting a gluten-free diet significantly improved depressive symptoms—and therefore may be one helpful strategy for treating mood disorders in those with such sensitivities.

9. Pesticide-Laden Produce

Pesticides, applied in agriculture to keep pests like insects and mold from destroying crops, have been associated with everything from cancer and hormone disruption to cognitive and behavioral problems, according to the Environmental Working Group. Therefore, a review published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health aimed to examine the findings that stated high pesticide exposure correlates with a greater risk for psychiatric disorders and suicidal behavior. The authors found that multiple studies noted increased suicide rates in areas with intensive pesticide use while working in agriculture seems to create a higher suicide risk, versus other occupations. To help minimize pesticide exposure, wash produce thoroughly before eating and choose organic when possible.

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

9 Comments »

  1. OMG, thanks for the information because my daughter was developed with Mayor depressive Disorder and mayor anxiety disorder, when I was pregnant I consumed all kinds of Omega vitamins thinking that could help me with my baby to be smart and then I followed a diet on my kid with milk containing Omega -3.
    Now I know why medication are not helping enough…

    Comment by Mary — February 11, 2022 @ 6:20 PM

  2. Wow, this was hard to read, but important. My husband and I are trying to switch to a vegan diet, and we’re realizing that the alt-meat products we’ve been purchasing are crazy high in sodium. Now reading about oils and the research around depression (which I’m prone to) is opening our eyes to how careful we should really be. We thought we’d *slide* into this vegan thing, but it looks like we should really aspire a little higher to a whole-foods plant-based diet instead of trying to make everything so “convenient.”
    Thanks for this!

    Comment by Roshana Ariel — February 14, 2022 @ 6:42 AM

  3. How can you tell which fish has high mercury or heavy metals. Is Salmon a good choice anywhere bought or are there certain brands more dangerous?

    Comment by Evelyn Bellamy — February 14, 2022 @ 6:47 AM

  4. This is a great article- thank you for publishing this information that is so important. The standard American diet contains so many of these detrimental items, which are likely also contributing to the high death rates from Covid in the U.S.

    Comment by Lynn — February 14, 2022 @ 9:20 AM

  5. so basically there is no escape. aside of choosing to starve. or maybe just eat carrots and raw potatos.

    Comment by Tracy Avent-Costanza — February 14, 2022 @ 4:38 PM

  6. Excellent news, eye opener 👏 👌

    Comment by Al — February 14, 2022 @ 6:26 PM

  7. I think you guys confused some of your readers from reading the 1st comment
    (Mary).

    It is not Omega-3 that is bad but it is Omega-6. Or eating fish contaminated with mercury to get more Omega-3.

    They were referring to the ratio of
    Omega-6 to Omega-3, not Omega-3.

    Comment by Jeremy Nicholls — February 15, 2022 @ 3:23 PM

  8. Please tell me if tofu and soy milk good to eat.

    Comment by Deborah Bowie — February 21, 2022 @ 9:50 AM

  9. I feel better when I take 1200 mg fish oil when I get up. I only eat albacore tuna big difference from that canned pink tuna which is processed from around the bones and tail of the tuna fish. Albacore is white. I cook elbow macaroni ranch dressing ground ginger cumin white pepper and garlic salt. My son and I have better nutition from this one change in our diet. 2008 we had poor nutrition eating restaurant foods a lot. We stopped fast food restaurants. I also checked books on nutrition. I’m diabetic. I watch the high glycemic list and load. Load means I stopped eating a second helping. I list weight. My BP and chol levels are much lower. 292 to 226. 169/100 to 130/80. It worked on my anxiety and depression also. I added more eggs 4 wk. I feel 100 after egg dish. More peanut butter and jelly on toast less butter. Cottage cheese on pasta dishes with spinach. Beans 2x wk rice and tacos. Greens. Salads and Frozen or fresh veg. I feel better from my diabetes. 121 prediabetic to 109. I added gardening for exercise and Frisbee and horseshoes. My depression is Mom and Dad are gone now. Over time I am healing able to think and do and live and enjoy my own life finally. Thank you Dr Amen and Tana for all you do for us over the years. YOU HAPPIER. I am. Stay on TV!

    Comment by Donna Hopcraft — March 4, 2022 @ 8:37 PM

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