Do certain nutrients prevent depression?

Do certain nutrients prevent depression?

  • Depression affects more than 15 million American adults
  • We have not only seen a rise in depression in the past few decades, but also a rise in obesity
  • A link between gut health and our moods has also been discovered in the past few years

For years, depression was thought to only have a mental component, something in the mind that we could fix with therapy and medications. But recent research is showing that what we eat makes a huge impact on our mental health, especially with our happiness, moods, and risk of developing depression.

Depression affects more than 15 million American adults, and those numbers have only been increasing over the past few decades. Depression is characterized as a mental illness resulting in negative thoughts and behaviors, which reduces the person’s ability to carry out daily living activities and disrupts their quality of life. It can be an isolating disease, leading to a myriad of other health concerns, and can sadly, at times, result in suicidal ideations and death.

We have not only seen a rise in depression in the past few decades, but also a rise in obesity, an increased consumption of processed foods, and a “busyness” in our society which leads to choosing convenience foods over fresh, whole foods.

Lower income populations also show increased levels of depression, which could be due to limited access and finances for healthy food options, as well as the stress that comes with being in a lower socio-economic group.

Even though it has been difficult for scientists to pinpoint which foods can increase the risk of developing depression and the mental health issues, research has come a long way and has discovered certain foods to avoid and to eat in order to promote mental health. The fact that diet plays a role in our mental health has been proven time and time again.

Research has shown that people who eat fast food have a 60-80% increased risk of developing depression, compared to those who eat a Mediterranean diet, whose risk is only 40-50%. The Mediterranean diet consists of fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains, legumes, and lean proteins and fish. Choosing these foods can possibly protect us from developing depression and other mental illnesses.

A link between gut health and our moods has also been discovered in the past few years. Our gastrointestinal (GI) tract, or our body’s route from mouth to excretion, is known as the second brain, because a variety of our neurotransmitters are made in the GI tract. These neurotransmitters play a key role in setting our moods, and what we eat affects these neurotransmitters.

Enhancing our gut health is key, so that our “feel good” neurotransmitters are formed and not prohibited. The more foods we eat that promote gut health, the lower our risk of developing depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and other mental health conditions.


Foods that get in the way of healthy neurotransmitters forming include alcohol, caffeine, and high calorie, low nutrient density foods such as processed carbohydrates and sweets, and fast food. The good news is there are foods that can promote gut health that we can choose in order to increase our feel good hormones and brighten our moods, while decreasing our risk of developing depression:

Serotonin is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter, and some foods that promote its formation in the gut include chickpeas and lean proteins, such as turkey and chicken.

Foods rich in vitamin B12 and folate also protect our moods, so consume foods such as lentils, almonds, spinach, chicken, and fish.

A deficiency in Vitamin D can also cause mood disorders, so spend some time in the sun to soak up some Vitamin D.

Foods rich in selenium decrease depression, so snack on some brazil nuts, walnuts, and poultry. Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial to our brain development, so eat high-quality cuts of salmon, cod, and nut oils.

In addition to choosing these high-quality foods, spend some time outside and moving. Exercise boosts moods and has been shown to increase our moods as much as an antidepressant drug would. Exercise is being prescribed more often in the medical field as a tool to combat depressive thoughts. Eating healthfully, as well as moving our bodies, can help increase our moods and our overall happiness.

Our health and wellness (nutrition and exercise combined) can play a huge role in our mental health. Choosing feel-good and mood-boosting foods will not only help you stay in a healthy weight range and promote good heart health, but they will also promote good mental health as well.

About the author

Tveen Verano [MPH, RD] is a registered dietitian nutritionist from Southern California. She is currently working as a renal dietitian and has a private practice as a registered dietitian and online wellness coach. Her passion for nutrition and real food drives her to keep up with current research and provide relevant and applicable information to the public to help stop the trend of obesity and provide vitality and health to everyone.