Working from home and steering clear of social gatherings can crush your mood and your motivation to eat healthy foods and exercise. A survey of more than 1,000 adults by supplement manufacturer Optimum Nutrition found that since the pandemic began, 62 percent of Americans have become concerned about their overall health, 51 percent are exercising less, and 42 percent are eating less healthy food—a situation that can have profoundly negative effects on mood.
Given the suffering and loss of life during this pandemic, as well as the financial hardships experienced by many people, it may be hard to believe that what you eat today, tomorrow, and the next day can make a difference in the way you feel and how you cope—but it definitely can.
The Diet-Depression Link
Numerous studies have found a correlation between depression and ultra-processed food—food that has been substantially altered from its natural state. In Spain, more than 15,000 adults were tracked for over 10 years, and researchers found that those who ate the most ultra-processed foods were almost twice as likely to develop depression. And a 5-year French study of more than 26,000 people found that for every 10-percent increase in ultra-processed foods consumed, there was a corresponding 21-percent higher likelihood of depression.
Highly processed foods are inflammatory, trigger oxidation, and disrupt the gut microbiome, all of which contribute to depression. In contrast, diets that are anti-inflammatory protect against clinical depression and more common depressive symptoms such as poor mood.
What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?
Researchers define ultra-processed food as any food that has been substantially altered from its natural state. Technically, any alteration, including cooking, juicing, or extracting oil from olives, is processing. But these are relatively minor changes that researchers call “minimally processed.” The negative impact that ultra-processed foods have on health and mood stems from the degree of alteration—how different the final product is from the food as it occurred in nature.
Some good foods may have a bit more processing, such as added sugar, salt, or spices. Fresh artisanal bread may be made with flour, water, and a starter. Milk and plain yogurt are typically pasteurized, and fish is canned. While these foods are definitely processed, each still retains its basic structure, and the ingredient list is short and easy to understand.
Ultra-processed food, on the other hand, undergoes multiple industrial procedures and is combined with ingredients—often with hard-to-pronounce names—that would not be found on a farm or in your kitchen. Additives may include different types of sugars (including high fructose corn syrup), unhealthy fats, extracts such as gluten or hydrolyzed protein, preservatives, coloring, emulsifiers, stabilizers, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavoring, and other chemicals. These are used to alter taste, texture, bulk, and shelf life. The list of ingredients is typically long, and the food is often unrecognizable from its original form.
Ultra-processed foods usually come in attractive packages and are aggressively marketed for their convenience—they’re ready to eat or easy to prepare. Examples include fast food burgers; hot dogs; many breads, cakes, and cookies; sodas; candy; flavored yogurt; instant noodles; chicken nuggets; sugary cereals; many frozen meals; chips; and some energy bars.
Related: Natural Depression & Anxiety Relief
What to Eat
The same studies that found the link between depression and poor diet also found that eating plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, and other plant foods, with small amounts of healthy animal protein, can have a positive effect on mood. The Mediterranean diet is a good example of this type of anti-inflammatory, mood-boosting regimen.
And eating well doesn’t have to mean skipping out on convenience. Fresh vegetables are available in ready-to-cook precut pieces. Steel-cut oatmeal is sold without additives. Natural supermarkets offer cage-free rotisserie chicken, artisanal bread, and other prepared foods made with the same types of ingredients you might use when cooking at home. Just check out the ingredient labels.
Transitioning to healthier foods can have quick results. One tightly controlled study of 20 people at an NIH inpatient clinic compared the effects of an ultra-processed diet with an unprocessed one. When participants switched to an unprocessed diet for just two weeks, their levels of inflammation dropped by 60 percent, all other health markers significantly improved, and they spontaneously lost about 2 pounds—even though they could eat as much as they wanted.
Your Food & Mood Reading List
The following books provide in-depth guidance on treating depression naturally:
The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs by Stephen S. Ilardi, PhD
The Mood Cure: The 4-Step Program to Take Charge of Your Emotions—Today by Julia Ross, MA
Natural Cures For Depression: A Holistic Approach To Forever Beat Depression With Proven Natural Remedies and Healing Superfoods by Emily Walters