Eat your greens

Sweeping new scientific analysis ranks 44 foods that boost mental health

"We do have the ability to change the way our brain is working."

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You had a bad day. The temptation to sink your sorrows in a calorie-rich tub of ice cream and a greasy pizza is real.

We get it. But while comfort food may be helpful in the short term, in the long run, not so much — and this is especially true for people manifesting depressive symptoms.

But there are foods that scientists think you should be munching on to help combat depression.

The link between depression and diet:

Depression affects over 300 million people worldwide, and some groups may be more at-risk than others — in the United States alone, 3.2 million of teenagers between the age of 12 and 17 experience depressive episodes. And these numbers are on the rise.

Depression is often treated using a combination of therapy and medication. But mounting scientific evidence suggests what you eat also has a huge effect on mental health. Diet may even reduce symptoms of depression — in a 2015 study, scientists advocate nutrition and diet be routinely incorporated into future psychiatric clinical practice.

“Everyone, every medical provider, should be talking about food. It is such an important part of our daily life and our health,” Samantha Elkrief, a therapist and health coach, tells Inverse.

“We always want to use as many tools as possible to prevent or treat symptoms."

“You don't have to eat kale or watercress.”

Her words jibe with the findings of a comprehensive 2019 analysis of 15 studies, including more than 45,000 participants. Together, the research suggest that diet does reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety. But what foods actually make those changes happen?

Positive changes to a diet can include consuming more foods with high nutrient counts, such as fruit and vegetables, fish, and whole grains. A study of over 10,000 Spanish students found that the Mediterranean diet (which includes vegetables, fruit and nuts, cereal, legumes, and fish) may reduce risk of depression. The Mediterranean diet may also help fight off various brain diseases. The findings were corroborated by similar studies on diets in Japan, Norway and China.

“We stay away from thinking about food in terms of calories. We focus on helping people add into their diet, rather than take away,” Elkrief says.

Build your own antidepressant diet

“When we talk about foods for mood, we generally look at food categories and tell people to choose from within them,” Elkrief says. “You don't have to eat kale or watercress.”

But there are ways to narrow down your foodie list a little.

Elkrief's colleagues Laura LaChance and Drew Ramsey, from Columbia University, developed an antidepressant food score, published in the World Journal of Psychiatry.

They identified 12 antidepressant nutrients among 34 essential nutrients, including iron, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, potassium, selenium, vitamins A, B, C, and zinc.

These nutrients either decrease neuroinflammation, which may cause depression, or increase neuroplasticity and resilience, which may help enable people to bounce back from a depressive episode.

“These are nutrients that allow our brain to grow," Elkrief says. "A lot of people were taught that our brain stops growing in our early 20s. But we do have the ability to change the way our brain is working.”

Foods with the highest levels of these nutrients scored highest on the antidepressant food score.

Below is a list of the top 44, according to whether they are plant-based or animal-based, with the percentage of Antidepressant Nutrient content per 100 g serving.

Antidepressant animal foods

  1. Oyster: 56 percent
  2. Liver and organ meats (spleen, kidneys, or heart): 18-38 percent
  3. Poultry giblets: 31 percent
  4. Clam: 30 percent
  5. Mussels: 28 percent
  6. Octopus: 27 percent
  7. Crab: 24 percent
  8. Goat: 23 percent
  9. Tuna: 15-21 percent
  10. Smelt: 20 percent
  11. Fish roe: 19 percent
  12. Bluefish: 19 percent
  13. Wolffish: 19 percent
  14. Pollock: 18 percent
  15. Lobster: 17 percent
  16. Rainbow trout: 16-17 percent
  17. Snail or whelk: 16 percent
  18. Spot fish: 16 percent
  19. Salmon: 10-16 percent
  20. Herring: 16 percent
  21. Emu: 16 percent
  22. Snapper: 16 percent

Antidepressant plant foods

  1. Watercress: 127 percent
  2. Spinach: 97 percent
  3. Mustard, turnip, or beet greens: 76-93 percent
  4. Lettuces (red, green, romaine): 74-99 percent
  5. Swiss chard: 90 percent
  6. Fresh herbs (cilantro, basil, or parsley): 73-75 percent
  7. Chicory greens: 74 percent
  8. Pummelo: 69 percent
  9. Peppers (bell, serrano, or jalapeno): 39-56 percent
  10. Kale or collards: 48-62 percent
  11. Pumpkin: 46 percent
  12. Dandelion greens: 43 percent
  13. Cauliflower: 41-42 percent
  14. Kohlrabi: 41 percent
  15. Red cabbage: 41 percent
  16. Broccoli: 41 percent
  17. Brussels sprouts: 35 percent
  18. Acerola: 34 percent
  19. Butternut squash: 34 percent
  20. Papaya: 31 percent
  21. Lemon: 31 percent
  22. Strawberry: 31 percent

Probiotics, prebiotics and depression

These nutrient-filled foods may also positively affect the flora in the gut, known as the microbiome. The evidence is growing that it is at least playing some role in one's quality of life, mood, cognition, and, perhaps, depression.

Recent research suggests probiotics, which can boost gut bacteria health, may also alleviate depressive symptoms. A review published in the Annals of General Psychiatry in 2017 identified ten studies suggesting that daily intake of probiotics improves mood, anxiety, and cognitive symptoms.

“Everyone, every medical provider, should be talking about food."

Probiotic foods include fermented vegetables (think pickles, kimchi, and kombucha) to promote these bacteria to your gut.

Prebiotic foods, foods that contain elements that help foster probiotic bacteria, may also help. Onions, asparagus, and leeks all fit the bill

But more research is needed before jumping to strong conclusions about diet and depression. Scientists don't know, for example, why specific foods are linked to certain mental health conditions, and not others, or what drives the link.

“There are people that are a little bit hesitant, or aren’t interested,” Elkrief says. “It’s new, it’s not what they’ve been doing for the past 30 years, but we do have good science.”

Ultimately, the evidence suggests that changing up what you eat may be just as good for your brain as your body.

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