Is depression a sign of malnutrition?


If American communities made time to grow, prepare and eat their own food, they would feel much better mentally and physically. In the meantime, the majority of Americans are suffering from some degree of malnutrition due to the poor quality of our food. Our current epidemics of obesity, chronic illness and mental illness are all likely related to our underlying malnutrition epidemic.

There are several problems with the U.S. food supply that are contributing to the malnutrition epidemic. First, processed foods that are high in calories and toxins but low in nutrition are part of the problem. Next, industrial farming has robbed the soil of its nutrients, so even organic fruits and vegetables are not as nutritious as they used to be. If the food grown is nutrient-poor, animal feed and, thus, animal meat will also be nutrient-poor. Finally, fast food and junk food are marketed to hardworking people who are too busy, sick, tired and poor to resist.

People with depression may be suffering from malnutrition. Both conditions share the following symptoms:

  • Depressed mood
  • Fatigue, loss of physical energy
  • Apathy
  • Unintentional weight gain or loss
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Nonspecific stomach problems
  • Nonspecific aches and pains
  • Loss of libido

Fortunately, high-quality food choices can dramatically improve depression symptoms. While many articles list specific foods that are particularly helpful for boosting mood, eating a varied, well-balanced diet is the only way to avoid malnutrition.

A study compared depression scores in people on a whole food diet (high intake of vegetables, fruits and fish) with a processed food diet (high intake of sweetened desserts, chocolates, fried food, processed meats, pies, refined grains, condiments). The researchers found that those on the processed food diet were at significantly greater risk for depression, whereas those on the whole food diet were protected from depressive symptoms.

A well-balanced diet should include vegetables, fruits and fish as well as whole grains, eggs, lean meats, beans, seeds and nuts. A variety of herbs and spices should also be included on a daily basis. Ideally, food should be fresh, local and organic. Extra virgin olive and coconut oils are better than vegetable and seed oils. Processed, refined, fried and sweetened foods should be avoided as well as most bakery items.

Alcoholic beverages may lift mood initially, but then worsen symptoms because alcohol is a potent depressant. Sweetened beverages, particularly those with artificial sweeteners, have been linked to depressive symptoms. Plenty of water and herbal teas during the day are a healthy way to stay hydrated.

Under natural conditions, nutritional supplements should not be necessary. Supplements can also be processed and contain unhealthy ingredients. But because of the current state of the food supply, supplementation does make logical sense for those who cannot grow their own food. Consult with a physician and nutritional expert for safe individual recommendations and to avoid drug interactions for those who are taking medications.

Managing depression symptoms by adopting healthy eating habits has other benefits as well, such as better overall health, disease prevention and weight control. Adequate daily exercise and rest are also extremely beneficial in the treatment of depression. Those with depressive symptoms that are too disabling to adopt these lifestyle changes might consider seeking medical stabilization and possibly residential treatment.

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About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education.

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