Food and mood: Is there a connection?

If you’ve ever found yourself in front of the TV after a bad day, mindlessly digging ice cream out of the container with a spoon, you know that mood and food are sometimes linked. But while stress eating is a verified phenomenon, the relationship between food and actual mood disorders, such as depression, is less clear. Or, to put it another way: can the things you eat influence your risk for depression — and can dietary changes potentially improve your mental health?

“The research regarding dietary factors and depression is still inconclusive,” says Patricia Chocano-Bedoya, a visiting scientist in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But there have been hints that food may play a role in depression.

Scientists looking for answers
Research using data from large observational studies — like the Nurses’ Health Study and the Women’s Health Initiative, which included middle-aged to older and mostly postmenopausal women — has found links. This includes a 2005 study in the International Journal of Obesity, which found associations between obesity and depression and dietary factors. Also, a 2011 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who ate more vitamin D–rich foods had a lower risk of depression than women who got less vitamin D in their diets.

Hints of a link
But conclusively linking your diet with your risk of depression is another story. It’s not yet possible to identify a single nutritional factor that increases or decreases the risk of depression, says Chocano-Bedoya, a senior epidemiologist at the University of Zurich.

“There is limited evidence regarding risk of depression associated with unhealthy dietary habits,” she says.

A 2014 study in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity that used data from the Nurses’ Health study did find an association between depression and a diet rich in sugar-sweetened soft drinks, refined grains, and red meat, says Chocano-Bedoya.

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