Fast food, alcohol, energy drinks, and certain other foods and beverages may make depression symptoms worse.

Talk therapy and medication are the two primary treatment options for people with depression. But self-care measures can be highly beneficial, too. While these may include getting good sleep, exercising regularly, and practicing meditation, there’s another element you might not have considered: diet.

If you’re experiencing depressive symptoms, such as sadness, overwhelming emotion, or lack of energy, you may sometimes look to food as a pick-me-up — perhaps a bag of chips for comfort or a sugary snack to quickly boost your energy.

However, there’s plenty of scientific research affirming the link between diet quality and depression. While some foods may alleviate symptoms, others may make them worse. So what are the key culprits to avoid?

Fast food is cheap, convenient, and tastes good (most of the time). However, researchers believe there’s a link between depression and levels of inflammation in the body, and inflammation is exacerbated by ingredients commonly found in large quantities in fast food dishes, like artificial trans fats, refined carbs, sodium, and sugar.

One large study found that people who eat fast food regularly are at a 40% greater risk of developing depression, and researchers suggest that the high amounts of trans fats in fast food products were a primary contributing factor. Meanwhile, other researchers discovered that people who frequently eat fast food were less resilient to depressive symptoms.

What to try instead

If you’re turning to fast food restaurants for the convenience and more affordable prices, try opting for a healthier choice on the menu if possible, such as a salad and wrap rather than a burger and fries.

Many people enjoy a glass or two of wine to lift their mood, and it’s hardly surprising — alcohol encourages the release of serotonin (aka the “happy chemical”) in our brain.

However, for those with depression, drinking alcohol could have the opposite effect, as studies suggest higher intake may lead to increased symptoms. This is sometimes called “alcohol-induced depressive disorder,” which occurs only shortly after you drink alcohol or while you go through withdrawal.

As the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reveals, alcohol affects different pathways in the brain, in turn affecting mood and behavior.

What’s more, drinking alcohol may make antidepressant medication less effective.

What to try instead

Consider exploring alcohol-free options such as mocktails or 0% beer, which allow you to enjoy the taste without the alcohol content.

Despite what some diet plans suggest, there’s generally nothing wrong with eating grains like rice and wheat. However, during the process to make them refined (e.g., turning brown rice into white rice), much of their beneficial nutrition is lost.

Plenty of research supports the link between unrefined grains and depression. For example, one study in women postmenopause saw that those who ate refined grains had a greater risk of new-onset depression. Meanwhile, researchers analyzing the diets of over 1,600 adults noted those who ate unrefined grains had a lower risk of depressive symptoms.

What to try instead

Whole grains offer both taste and vitamins — so consider eating brown rice or whole-wheat or whole-grain bread rather than the white varieties. You can also try to incorporate other grains like buckwheat or bulgur into your diet.

We’ve long been warned of the dangers of eating too much salt, particularly around the negative effects on blood pressure and cardiovascular health. But heart disease isn’t only physical. It’s also linked with a greater risk of mental health concerns.

Yet, it’s not only via the heart that salt can impact the brain. Human and animal studies have found links between high salt intake and increased inflammation in the body. Plus, animal research has noted the ingredient’s negative effect on the gut microbiome and blood flow in the brain. All of these effects may contribute to depression and impaired cognitive function.

What to try instead

Salt is necessary for our bodies to function properly, assisting in everything from muscle function to nerve transmission. This means you don’t want to cut it out entirely. Instead, try to reduce your intake by not sprinkling an extra teaspoon (or two) on top of meals.

Refined sugar negatively influences an array of physical health conditions, from diabetes and heart disease to obesity and some types of cancer. But high intake has been shown to affect mental well-being, too.

Some research indicates a potential association between sugar intake and depression, and researchers believe this ingredient has several negative long-term effects on the body that encourage this link.

These include:

  • increased inflammation and hormone imbalance, both of which are linked to mood
  • a potential impact on the growth and development of brain cells and proteins
  • influence on neurotransmitters in the brain

Not so sweet after all!

What to try instead

It can be hard to ditch those sweet snacks and treats entirely, so consider looking for options that are lower in sugar when grocery shopping to help cut your intake levels.

It can help to read the ingredient list on the label. It’s ordered from highest to lowest amount, which means that it contains the most of the first ingredient, second most of the second ingredient and so forth. If a type of sugar is listed as one of the first three to four ingredients, the product is likely quite high in sugar.

If you’re trying to cut down on refined sugar, you may think artificial sweeteners are a better option. But research suggests these can also contribute to a variety of health concerns, including — you guessed it — depression.

Various studies have explored and uncovered a link between sweeteners in drinks and an increased risk of depression, with some highlighting certain varieties as having a bigger impact.

For example, in one study, people who consumed a diet high in aspartame experienced more depression and irritable mood. Researchers suggest this may be because the ingredient impacts the balance of chemicals in the brain (such as the “pleasure” chemicals serotonin and dopamine) and increases levels of cortisol, the “stress” hormone.

What to try instead

It may be a good idea to aim to reduce your artificial sweetener intake or try other unrefined sugar alternatives, such as honey or stevia. But it’s key to remember that they’re still forms of sugar, so it’s still best to consume them in moderation.

Energy drinks are another quick and easy pick-me-up, and many people sip on one of these after a bad night’s sleep or a tough gym session. However, energy drinks have a significant effect on our physical health due to their caffeine and sugar content, which can also affect our mental state.

For example, in one study, people who didn’t typically drink energy drinks were asked to start consuming them regularly. All participants experienced higher levels of stress, while men in particular also showed heightened symptoms of depression.

Although studies have found that drinking coffee may lower depression risk, too much caffeine can cause sleep disruption, which, in turn, may make symptoms of depression worse, according to some research.

What to try instead

Try sipping on more natural energy-boosting drinks, such as green tea, or nibble on a couple of squares of dark chocolate.

A lot of barbecue, picnic, and quick-meal staples like sausages, ham slices, corned beef, and jerky are classed as processed meats. While they’re easy to prep and bring into meals if you’re not in the mood to cook, these ingredients have the potential to encourage signs of depression.

Myriad studies have found significant links between red and processed meat consumption and increased risk of experiencing depression and its symptoms. As with fast food, scientists believe this is due to their trans and saturated fat content, which encourages higher inflammation levels in the body.

What to try instead

If you don’t want to leave meat out of your sandwich entirely, grilled chicken or turkey are healthier options. Other ingredients like tuna, avocado, or egg also make for hearty fillings.

If you have depression, you may find that a change to your diet can help relieve or improve symptoms to some extent. However, results vary from person to person, and switching up your diet is not usually a substitute for traditional treatment methods.

If you find diet swaps make little difference or you experience persistent and moderate to severe depression, you will likely need additional help. Don’t be afraid to speak with your doctor about devising a treatment plan that may involve medication and therapy.

A note on accessibility

Not everyone has easy access to fresh, healthy foods. Poverty and food deserts can greatly affect a person’s dietary options and food choices, which in turn may impact health and well-being.

In 2016, nearly 12.7% of the U.S. population lived in poverty, including 18% of all U.S. children. These people often find it difficult to put food on their tables, which is known as food insecurity. Food insecurity is linked to many chronic conditions, including depression.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) designed the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which specifies types and quantities of foods that theoretically ensure adequate nutrition within a certain budget.

The TFP is used as the basis for food stamp program benefits like the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It’s calculated each month based on average prices for the foods in question.

Still, the USDA admits that despite programs like SNAP or meal plans like the TFP, not everyone can afford a healthy diet.

What’s more, the TFP has been heavily criticized for disregarding the usual eating habits of the U.S. population, being nutritionally unbalanced, and relying on expensive and rarely eaten foods.

Besides food prices, accessibility may also play a major role in why a healthy diet may not be achievable, as many people who live in poverty live in food swamps or food deserts, in which dollar and liquor stores may be some of the only options for purchasing foods and drinks.

If you find it difficult to swap in healthier food options suggested in this article due to accessibility issues, know that this is not your fault.

Plus, some research suggests that even though people who follow a healthier diet may have a slightly lower risk of depression, eating a lower-quality diet is not necessarily linked with a higher incidence of the condition.

Dietary changes are not the only thing you can try to ease depression symptoms.

Regular exercise — even if you start small with just 5 to 10 minutes a day — may be beneficial, as well. Or you could try meditation, which you can do at home whenever it suits your schedule. There are plenty of free guided meditations online that can help get you started. If you’re interested in therapy but unsure of how to afford it, these tips and free options may help.

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There’s no denying that nutrition has a role to play in managing depression, and keeping a food diary could help pinpoint any associations between specific ingredients and your symptoms. Perhaps you notice they’re worse the day after going out for drinks with friends or after an indulgent day of eating lots of sweet treats.

In addition to making food swaps, it’s worth bearing in mind other ingredients that could help improve symptoms and trying to incorporate more of them into your meals if possible.

The Mediterranean Diet, which is packed with foods like seafood, healthy fats, and legumes, is recognized for its various health benefits, including relieving signs of depression. This is potentially due to the large number of micronutrients called polyphenols it comprises.

Eating foods rich in omega-3 (such as oily fish, flaxseed, and nuts) may also be beneficial, along with plenty of fruit and vegetables. It’s thought drinking coffee in moderation may be of assistance, too.

If you’re on a tight budget, it’s good to know that canned and frozen foods, including canned tuna, salmon packed in water, and frozen fruits and veggies, can be nutritious options as well.

There’s nothing wrong with giving yourself a bit more TLC where possible — and this approach may just be one of the easiest (and tastiest) to experiment with.