For people with depression, fueling your body with high-quality nutrition can literally help change your life for the better, according to a slew of studies.
“What you choose to put into your body will influence how you feel both physically and mentally,” says Leigh Merotto, a registered dietitian in private practice in Toronto. “If you prioritize consuming enough plant-based foods, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats, and eating regularly throughout the day, it can make a great difference in terms of your overall health and well-being.”
Not surprisingly, people who consistently eat healthy foods by, say, following the Mediterranean diet (which is centered on plant-based foods, olive oil, and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids from fish), enjoy better mental health than people whose diet is centered on red meat and processed foods high saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars. That’s according to an article published in June 2020 in BMJ.
But nourishing your body when you’re depressed is often easier said than done, especially if you feel too low to prepare even one meal, or if you don’t have any appetite at all. As Amy Gorin, a plant-based registered dietitian nutritionist in Stamford, Connecticut, explains, when you’re struggling with depression, it’s not uncommon to have no initiative to shop for food, prepare a meal, or clean up afterward.
“Some of the primary symptoms of depression — loss of motivation, poor concentration, difficulty sleeping, and low energy — can often result in someone not properly taking care of themselves in ways such as not showering, engaging in exercise, planning balanced meals, or cooking,” Merotto says.
The opposite can also be true, she adds. Being depressed can cause people to eat more than usual to soothe their symptoms. Often that means reaching for calorie-dense highly processed junk foods, sweets, and fried foods. And because those foods lack high-quality nutrients, they can worsen depressive symptoms.
What’s more, eating a diet high in those types of pro-inflammatory foods — like breads, crackers, and cereals made with white flour, as well as desserts and beverages sweetened with sugar — is linked with depression, according to a review published in May 2019 in Frontiers in Nutrition.
With all that in mind, how can you eat a nutrient-rich diet when your mental and physical energy is low? Here are six expert-recommended strategies.
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1. Treat Yourself to Grocery Delivery to Get Through a Slump
The quality of your food matters. So if you’re too low to pick up the fruits, vegetables, nuts, and lean fish and poultry that might actually improve your mood, the added delivery fees that grocery delivery services charge can be a good investment.
“It may seem like a luxury to press a button and have groceries appear on your doorstep, but using a grocery delivery service removes many barriers to obtaining healthy foods,” Gorin says. Plus, some services, such as Instacart, come with a bonus: You can restock your cart with past purchases to make the process even quicker and easier.
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2. Eat Your Meals With Loved Ones — in Person or Virtually
“If possible, try to eat meals with others, as this has been shown to help support decreased stress and more mindful eating at mealtimes,” Merotto says. If you can’t eat together with others at home because you live alone or are social distancing, have a Zoom call with a friend or family member at mealtimes.
In some cases, eating meals with family may even help prevent depression. A systematic review published in Canadian Family Physician found that frequent family meals help protect young people from a range of psychosocial problems, including depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts.
3. Keep Your Pantry Stocked With Healthy Staples
Having a generous supply of long-lasting, nutritious foods in your cupboard, refrigerator, and freezer helps ensure that you’ll always be able to quickly pull together a good-for-you meal. Gorin’s checklist of pantry essentials below is a good place to start.
- Shelf-Stable Soup If you have low-sodium canned or boxed vegetable, lentil, or bone broth soups on hand, you can prepare a healthy meal in minutes, she says.
- Canned Beans They are chock-full of protein and fiber, a winning combination that helps you feel fuller for longer, she says: “Aim to keep several cans of no-salt-added canned beans on hand. Then rinse and drain them and add them to anything from a salad to a grain bowl.”
- Nuts and Nut Butters “I love keeping nuts on hand, as they can be easily added to anything from a salad to a Greek yogurt bowl,” Gorin says. “Pistachios, for example, offer a trio of plant protein, fiber, and better-for-you fats. They’re also one of the highest-protein snack nuts out there.”
- Spices Low-salt or salt-free seasonings and spices can add a lot of flavor, while taking up very little storage space in your pantry, says Gorin: “For example, you could add cinnamon to oatmeal or coffee, or sprinkle oregano, basil, and rosemary on roasted veggies.”
4. Prepare a List of Super-Easy Meals to Get You Through the Toughest Days
A depressive episode can quickly zap your energy and impede your ability to cook, says Merotto. Plan ahead with a list of nutritious, minimal-effort meals to turn to when cooking feels too overwhelming. Her suggestions:
- Avocado and egg on whole-grain toast
- Canned tuna with rice (and if you’re feeling up to it, sautéed veggies)
- Greek yogurt, a handful of salt-free nuts, and frozen fruit of your choice
- Whole-grain toast with natural peanut butter and a chopped banana
- Scrambled eggs with frozen mixed vegetables on a whole-grain wrap
- Oatmeal with protein powder, natural nut butter, and frozen fruit
- Smoothies containing frozen fruits, leafy greens, and Greek yogurt
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5. Benefit by Eating at the Same Times Each Day
Sticking to a set meal schedule can help you stay nourished even amid a depressive episode, Merotto explains. It also can reduce stress, since the decision of when to eat has already been made.
Plus, compared to eating whenever you feel like it, a consistent schedule helps you maintain a balanced diet in the long run, according to the Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine.
The optimal schedule, Merotto says, is to eat every 3 to 4 hours each day. A sample meal schedule could look like this:
- Breakfast: 9 or 10 a.m.
- Lunch: noon or 1 p.m.
- Snack: 3 p.m. or 4 p.m.
- Dinner: 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.
6. Order Nutritious Takeout on Days You Just Can’t Deal
If it’s one of those days when you don’t have the motivation to even look at the kitchen, go right ahead and order takeout — just skip foods high in saturated fats and sodium, Gorin suggests.
“You might think that takeout has to be food like pizza and pasta, but you can order healthier takeout, too,” she says. “For instance, many Italian restaurants serve grilled salmon with veggies, or you can order a Greek salad from a local Mediterranean restaurant or diner.”
In fact, experts at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (PDF) view ordering takeout as a great opportunity to up your nutrition game. The keys:
- In the mood for a sandwich? Choose lean meats like chicken, turkey, or lean beef on whole-grain bread, then add tomatoes and vegetables such as lettuce and peppers. Go easy on the cheese and mayo; try mustard, ketchup, or salsa for extra flavor instead.
- When it comes to sides, opt for fruit, a small salad, or a baked potato, which has more nutrients and fiber and less fat than chips or fries.
- Ordering pizza? Top it with veggies. And if you’d like a meat topping, make it chicken, shrimp, lean ham, or Canadian bacon.
- Stop by the deli at the grocery store for a quick, nourishing meal of rotisserie chicken. Add a bagged, prewashed salad, and have fresh fruit for dessert — and you’re done.
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