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The UnHappy Meal: These Aren’t Good Mood Foods

depression, nutrition, processed foods, Western Diet

You have probably read a lot about foods that have the potential to boost your mood when you are feeling blue. Unfortunately, there are several foods that you should also be avoiding, because they may be bringing you down.

The acronym used for the Standard American Diet is SAD – and it probably isn’t a coincidence. Fats, added sugar and sodium are way too prevalent in our modern day diet full of processed foods. Many of these ingredients have been linked to an increased risk of depression in our society.

And there are a lot of us who are depressed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in ten US adults are clinically depressed, a mental illness that can be both costly and debilitating to sufferers.

Could a simple change in diet fix all of that? Well, it’s not likely that your mood is solely based on what you eat, but if you make small changes such as improving your meals, committing to exercise, getting enough rest and tackling unnecessary stress, you will probably find that your outlook on life is much sunnier.

Saturated Fats, Trans Fats

There have been many studies that link processed foods, fried foods and other foods loaded in fat to an increased risk of depression. For example, a study published in the journal PLoS One found that consumption of saturated fats and trans-fats, found in foods such as meats, butter, potato chips, and baked goods contribute more to depression than monounsaturated fats found in nuts, vegetable oils and fish. A separate study, published in Public Health Nutrition, noted that eating fast food increases the risk of developing depression by 51%.

What’s more, these “bad fats” also tend to block the action of the “good” omega-3 fats you consume. Inadequate consumption of omega-3’s is associated with depression and poor mood.


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Over that past several decades there has been a “massive increase” in our consumption of sugar. One of the major sources has been soda, which Americans consume (on average) of 216 liters annually. Each liter of soda contains 108 grams of sugar.

How does sugar contribute to depression? When we first eat sugar, it is broken down into its components of glucose and fructose. Glucose flows through our bloodstream to be carried to cells for energy. If we are healthy, blood glucose levels return to normal fairly quickly, before it can do damage. However, those with diabetes, or prediabetes, glucose remains circulating throughout the body longer, causing damage to body tissues, including the brain.

In addition, after our bodies recover from the sugar spike, we often plummet into a state of low blood sugar, which tends to cause irritability. Excess sugar also causes production to slow in our “endorphine” center of the brain, which can cause depression.

Beware also of foods high in High Fructose Corn Syrup, a sweetener often used in processed foods and soft drinks. Fructose can react chemically with tryptophan, the amino acid precursor for serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter that plays an important role in mood regulation.

Nutrient Deficient Diets

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which is a long-term study on how Americans eat, our reliance on convenience foods rather than fresh, unprocessed foods has led to a diet deficient in many key nutrients. Among these are several that may contribute to depression.

Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to depression in a recent study from UT Southwestern Medical Center. Among their findings, those with low blood levels of vitamin D were most at risk for reporting depressive symptoms.

Just about all of the B-vitamins have mood-boosting qualities. While, in general, Americans are not deficient in most of the B vitamins, eating processed foods could lead to a diet that is lacking in many of these nutrients, especially folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6.

Selenium deficiencies are linked to depression and suicide. Selenium is essential to brain function and could help to improve your mood. Interestingly, the foods rich in selenium (in particular, nuts and seafood) also are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids which may help to improve depression symptoms. Zinc is another mineral rich in seafoods which can have an effect on mood.

Overall, a healthy balanced diet consisting of a variety of foods gives you the best chance at lifting your mood and making you feel more energetic throughout the day.