Many of us seem obsessed with food to change the way we look. But this article focuses on what to eat to change the way we think and feel. Recent research tells us a lot of interesting things about diet and depression. Some foods will increase inflammation in the body, putting you at higher risk for developing depression. Some foods do the opposite – they act as an antidepressant. Changing your diet one step at a time can help you reduce depressive symptoms or recover completely. Best of all, the antidepressant grub is both colourful and delicious.

So, do you want to learn more about the inflammatory diet and how to avoid it at the supermarket? And get a detailed description of the antidepressant diet? And step-by-step instructions on how to change your eating habits? Well, you’ve come to the right virtual place.

The Western diet and depression

Most people know that eating vegetables is good for your health, but few know about the important connection between diet and depression. What comes to mind when you see this edible exposé?

western diet

This stuff is easy to find in a Western supermarket, often cheap and can be difficult to resist. Unfortunately, all of these products actually increase the risk of depression. 

In 2016, researcher Esther Vermeulen and her colleagues found that people who ate a lot of red meat, added sugars, high-fat dairy products, fried foods and creamy sauces experienced more depressive symptoms and depressed moods than others. This means that sugar and fat equals low mood. It also means that the Western diet is not as cheap and convenient as it seems – we eventually pay for it with our physical and mental health.

Does junk food cause depression?

There is a clear connection between chronic inflammation in the body and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. In the past, researchers thought that a depressed mood made people eat more junk food. Today, we know that the opposite is also true. Eating too much fat, white flour, sugar and processed meat* increases inflammation in the body and the risk of depression. 

*Meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of chemical preservatives, for example, bacon, salami, sausages, hot dogs or luncheon meats.

Sugar is one of the biggest villains in the shady neighborhoods of depressive diets. Sugar not only increases the risk of inflammation and depression, but also tempts us to eat more unhealthy foods. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting that you should completely stay away from sugar forever. Just don’t eat more than 60 grams per day. It’s equivalent to:

  • Drinking half a litre of soda
  • Eating fruit yogurt with honey monster puffs and a glass of juice
  • 100 grams of sweets
  • or 100 grams of milk chocolate

Remember, if you have a bar of milk chocolate, you have already reached your sugar limit for the day. That means you need to be careful not to eat more sweet stuff, which can be trickier than it seems. Sugar is often included (or hidden) in products that we usually don’t think of as sweet. The white menace is found in:

  • low fat yoghurt
  • barbecue sauce
  • spaghetti sauce and ketchup
  • salad dressing
  • granola
  • breakfast cereals
  • protein bars
  • energy drinks 
  • iced tea

The easiest way to avoid hidden sugar is to stay away from prepackaged food and low fat products. 

Watch out for chemical additives such as stabilizers, sweeteners and thickeners. They too cause inflammation and increase the risk of depression. The same is true for palm oil, which is found in most junk foods and ready meals.

What to erase from your diet when depressed

This list includes the most important stuff to avoid if you want to eat your way towards mental health:

  • Everything fried 🍟
  • Sugar 🍭(more than 60 grams per day)
  • Ready meals🥡
  • Soda🥤
  • Processed meat 🥓
  • Stabilizers, sweeteners, thickeners ☠️ (check table of contents)
  • Juice 🍹

Later, you’ll learn a few, basic strategies to help you avoid these Western temptations, but first, let’s take a look at the antidepressant grub.

The Mediterranean diet and depression

The SMILES study, conducted in 2017, showed that 30% of depressed participants recovered just by changing their eating habits. Green leaves, other vegetables, fat fish, fruit, nuts, seeds, olive oil, whole grain* and more green leaves is the stuff that improves mental health (I know that green leaves are in there twice, but they’re just so important).

*Whole grains include whole oats, brown rice, whole rye, freekeh, quinoa, millet and whole-grain barley.

The traditional Mediterranean diet is anti-inflammatory and protects against depression. And if you’re planning to eat more like a Greek shepherd, your new diet will give you these benefits as a bonus:

  • Builds stronger bones
  • Stabilizes blood pressure and blood fat levels
  • Strengthens the immune system
  • Reduces arteriosclerosis
  • Reduces stress
  • Helps with weight control
med diet for depression

It can be difficult to stay away from fried stuff, but the reward is worth the effort. Eating an antidepressant diet not only protects against depression, but actually changes the structure of your brain. Neuroscientist Dr Lisa Mosconi has studied the effects of different diets on the brain. Her work shows that people who eat a Mediterranean diet have bigger brains (!) than people on a Western diet. You don’t believe me? I get it. Less chatting, more proving. 

You’ll find this picture in Dr Mosconi’s book Brain food. The left brain belongs to a 52-year-old woman on a Mediterranean diet and the right brain belongs to a 50-year-old woman on a Western diet:

diet brain

The Mediterranean woman has a ‘perfect’ brain. Her brain takes up most of the space inside the skull and the little butterfly-shaped black part in the middle is small. The Western brain has shrunk in important areas, which means that brain cells have died. The black areas are larger and the brain ages much faster. 

This same pattern can be seen in large groups of people. It tells us that a nutritious diet can affect the shape of the brain. Best of all, it’s never too late to help your brain become more resistant to depression and other diseases.

What to eat when depressed

Hopefully, this article has made you hungry for brain food, but what exactly should we eat to reduce depressive symptoms? And how much? 
Let me introduce a few anti-inflammatory treats, all tasty and all antidepressant.



People with depression often have a magnesium and zinc deficiency. Nuts contain both of these essential nutrients. So, go ahead and include nuts in your diet (if you’re not allergic). Walnuts and almonds are particularly wonderful. Two tablespoons per day is enough.

Fish and fish eggs


Omega 3 fat is another antidepressant. It’s found in salmon, mackerel, herring and caviar. Have some fish 2-3 times a week.

Olive oil


Cold pressed olive oil is amazingly anti-inflammatory and an important ingredient in the Mediterranean diet. Go ahead and drench your salad in olive oil and use olive oil as your cooking fat. Make sure it’s cold pressed and virgin.

Green leaves


You’d also want to include green leaves in your diet. Have spinach, nettles, dandelions or chard with every meal. Chard is especially impressive with vitamin A, C, B6 and magnesium.

If you like to eat meat, the recommendation is a maximum of 1-2 servings per week.

An antidepressant Mediterranean diet includes:

  • Vegetables and green leaves 🥬 (150 grams every meal)
  • Unsalted nuts 🌰 (2 tablespoons per day)
  • Legumes (3-4 servings per week)
  • Fruit 🍇 (2-3 pieces per day)
  • Fat fish or fish eggs 🐟 (2-3 times a week)
  • Berries 🍒 (1 serving per day)
  • Plain, unsweetened yoghurt or kefir 🐐(100-200 ml per day)
  • Cold-pressed virgin olive oil (2 tablespoons per day)
  • Water! 💧(8 glasses per day)
  • Whole grain 🌾(1-2 servings per day)

This stuff will give your more energy, improve concentration and protect against diseases. Eating a Mediterranean diet will help you use the connection between diet and depression to your advantage. The next section shows you where to start.

How to change your diet to reduce depression

A common mistake people make when trying to change their diet is overdoing it. Switching from a Western diet to a traditional Mediterranean diet in one day will most likely be too challenging and create unnecessarily brutal cravings for sugar and fat. A more balanced strategy would be to add one thing to your diet every week and avoid one eatable thing every week. Creating new habits and routines is a difficult task and requires some effort. The best thing to do is to take it one small step at a time. Ready to begin?

Choose one thing to add to your diet this week (starting today):

  • Vegetables and green leaves 🥬 (150 grams every meal)
  • Unsalted nuts 🌰 (2 tablespoons per day)
  • Legumes (3-4 servings per week)
  • Fruit 🍇 (2-3 pieces per day)
  • Fat fish or fish eggs 🐟 (2-3 times a week)
  • Berries 🍒 (1 serving per day)
  • Plain, unsweetened yoghurt or kefir 🐐(100-200 ml per day)
  • Cold-pressed virgin olive oil (2 tablespoons per day)
  • Water! 💧(8 glasses per day)
  • Whole grain 🌾(1-2 servings per day)

If you frequently eat fast food, other processed foods and food with high sugar content, it’s best to start by adding fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds to your diet. This is because fast-food eaters usually need more vitamins, minerals and fibre. 

So did you pick one thing to add? Good. Write it down. Tell a friend. Put it on your shopping list.

Now, choose one thing to avoid this week (or forever), starting today:

  • Everything fried 🍟
  • Sugar 🍭(more than 60 grams per day)
  • Ready meals🥡
  • Soda🥤
  • Processed meat 🥓
  • Stabilizers, sweeteners, thickeners ☠️ (check table of contents)
  • Juice 🍹

Did you pick something? Good. Write it down. Tell a friend. Erase it from your shopping list.

You’re already two steps closer to an antidepressant diet. The next few sections will give you more advice on the road towards a Mediterranean meal plan.

The food diary

A food diary is an excellent strategy to help you change eating habits. The idea is quite simple, so if you were hoping for something complicated and frustrating, I must disappoint. This is how you make a food diary in three simple steps:

  1. Decide in advance what to eat on a particular day.
  2. Write it down.
  3. Preferably tell someone about it.

Are you ready to try it? Ask yourself these questions and write down your answers:

  • What will you have for breakfast tomorrow? (Maybe unsweetened yoghurt with almonds, blackberries and raw honey, plus a cup of green tea? Or an omelette with vegetables?)
  • What will you have for lunch tomorrow? (Maybe an avocado toast? Or scrambled eggs with grilled sweet potatoes?)
  • What will you have for dinner tomorrow? (Salmon and quinoa with a salad made of spinach leaves? Maybe sprinkle some flax seeds on your salad and drench it in olive oil?)
  • What are acceptable snacks throughout the day tomorrow? (Perhaps fruit smoothies, unsalted nuts, carrots, apples, oranges?)
  • Whom can you tell about this meal plan? (Telling someone else about your food diary increases your chances of actually using it.)

Did you answer all the questions? Did you write down your answers? Good. Do the same thing tomorrow. And the next day. And… you get it.


When trying to stay away from delicious food that hurts your brain, it can be helpful to use substitutes. It basically means replacing the unhealthy favourite snack with something healthier, but also delicious. For example, if you decide to avoid chocolate chip cookies, you may use dark chocolate as a substitute. It means that you can have as much dark chocolate as you want, to compensate for the loss (losing chocolate chip cookies can indeed be a painful experience). Dark chocolate with a minimum 70% cacao is a great substitute. Baby carrots is another popular choice.


Emotional eating and the apple test

We don’t always eat because we’re hungry. Humans are more complicated than that. Sucks, doesn’t it? 

We tend to use food for other things than to satiate hunger, so it’s a good idea to listen to the signals from your body before moving towards the fridge. Do the apple test. Are you hungry enough to eat an apple? No? Then you’re not hungry enough. Perhaps you’re stressed, tired, bored or sad. Try calling a friend or going for a walk until you’re hungry enough to eat something from the Mediterranean plate.


Also, learn to reward yourself with other things than food. Write down five rewarding activities that you can use instead of raiding the fridge. Here are a few examples:

  • Getting a massage
  • Taking a relaxing bath
  • Playing a video game
  • Going to the movies (without snacks)
  • Playing with a dog, cat or random goat
  • Calling your best friend
  • Taking a break from the computer and going for a walk
  • Reading a favourite book
  • Asking for a hug

Get healthy recipes here:
Brain foods for depression – 11 brain healthy recipes

In conclusion

A diet with vegetables, fruit, berries, fish, legumes, herbs, whole grain, seeds and olive oil is anti-inflammatory and protects against depression. The SMILES study from 2017 showed that 30% of depressed participants recovered just by switching to a Mediterranean diet. 

Eating too much fat, white flour, sugar and processed meat increases inflammation in the body and the risk of depression. The easiest way to avoid hidden sugar is to stay away from prepackaged food and low fat products.

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If you want to know more about how to manage depression at home, check out 5 treatments for depression without medication. Or download the free depression app from Flow Neuroscience, including over 50 behaviour therapy sessions. 

Before we end this tasty text, let me ask you one more question:

  • When are you going shopping for nutritious food?

Write down your answer. Put it in your calendar. Set an alarm. Good work 🙂

Thank you for your attention!

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