In this blog post, we are going to discuss what diet for depression makes the most sense, based on nutritional biochemistry and an understanding of nutritional psychiatry. Some of what you are going to read here is not going to be consistent with mainstream advice, but I promise that it will be consistent with the research literature about what a brain needs to function and what a depressed brain needs to heal.

First, we will do some important myth-busting that may get in the way of you picking a diet for your depression. Then we will discuss general diet options to improve mental health, and then finally what diet is most likely to reduce your inflammation the most and be the best diet for depression. By best, I mean the most likely to plummet the inflammation in your brain to low enough levels that it can heal. You may very well get improvements just by following the diet discussed for general mental health.

Stop eating things from a box – Highly Processed Foods

Stop including highly processed “foods” as something you eat. If you have depression, just cut them out. I know you like them, that they are one of the few things you look forward to. That they seem to be the only thing that brings you pleasure. But they are skyrocketing your brain inflammation and are a huge factor causing your symptoms. These are substances more than food. There is research literature proving they behave in your brain as drugs do. Don’t let big food companies hijack your brain and your health and well-being. They just want to make a profit. They are not your friend and they do not care about you. They want your money. Even if that means you suffer for eating their product. Highly processed “foods” are full of inflammatory oils and the blood sugar spike you get eating all of those processed carbohydrates are in and of themselves, highly inflammatory.

And don’t be thinking the tiny bit of synthetic vitamins listed on the box makes them as nutritious. The fortification you see in processed foods is a raindrop of what you actually need for a functioning brain and nothing near the amount of nutrition you would get from eating whole foods. Many of those synthetic vitamins are not even very bioavailable, and you are still displacing a ton of nutrients you desperately need for a healthy brain. Highly processed foods displace nutrient-dense whole-food options.

I could do a whole blog post on highly processed foods, and probably will. But in general, highly processed food tends to be packaged for shelf life. You will find highly processed food among the shelves of the grocery store and usually (but not always) away from the outside perimeter where the meat, vegetables, fruits, dairy, and eggs are found. If it has a highly processed ingredient in the ingredient list, this makes it a highly processed food.

But these are Kale chips, you say! Yes, they are. But if they are soaked in soybean, canola, or vegetable oil; all highly processed industrial oils, then they have become a highly processed food. And if you are depressed you should not eat them. They are not part of a diet for depression.

This means a lot of the takeout you are buying because you are too depressed to cook, is highly processed food because they are using industrialized oils and sugars. Sugar is a highly processed carbohydrate. The addition of these things creates a highly-processed food out of something that should have been fine for you to eat.

Take the money you are using for take-out and get a meal plan delivery for a month. Pick one of the delivery options that follow the guidelines we will discuss below. Do it for a month and it will likely cost less than your current actual fast food or takeout budget. This works great for so many of my depressed clients, that are really suffering and just too sick to take care of themselves properly or are overwhelmed by the prospect.

If you are functioning better than that, get some whole foods cookbooks, meal prep for the week, and throw out the food that is pretending to be food in your cupboards and making you depressed. A highly processed food diet is not a diet for depression. Let alone anyone wanting optimal health. Nobody in your household that you love and care for should be eating this stuff.

Vegan is not the best diet for depression

Vegan is not the best diet for depression or any other mental illness. A vegan diet can be a double whammy for mental health. First, not all Vegan’s are eating whole foods diet. There can be a lot of reliance on highly processed food alternatives full of inflammatory ingredients, like those industrialized oils and sugars. A vegan diet can essentially just become a nutrient-deficient highly inflammatory ultra-processed food diet.

Second, there are truly specialized preparation methods that need to be done to reduce anti-nutrients found in plant foods. Big food companies are not doing those practices for you. I was serious when I reminded you that they do not care about your well-being. Those corn chips have not gone through a five to seven-step process to reduce anti-nutrients that deplete your minerals. Not everyone who is vegan is carefully doing these ancestral processes to reduce anti-nutrients. This will deplete minerals and make brain health worse. Some of those minerals are cofactors you need to keep brain cells healthy and be able to make your neurotransmitters.

I am not anti-vegan beyond what I see it does to the mental health of the people I work with as a mental health counselor. I have no anti-vegan agenda. And neither does the research literature. Below are just a couple of published peer-reviewed articles and chapters regarding vegan and/or vegetarian diets and mental health.

Many studies that try to tease out the association of veganism and mental illness will include vegetarians in the same study. And this creates problems with the data being studied. Vegetarians still will eat some animal foods (eggs, dairy, etc.) and this improves the intake of bioavailable nutrients. Vegan and vegetarian diets are completely different ball games when it comes to mental health.

And third, supplementation does not always work or must be individualized for genetic factors. If you are vegan and you have depression, and you believe you are supplementing correctly, I promise you that you are not. Your depression is a direct reflection of your nutrient status. But wait, you may say, I have a stressful life and this is obviously why I am depressed! I am sure you have a stressful life, and I am sure your stressful life contributes to your nutrient depletion (e.g., magnesium, B vitamins). So let me say it another way.

Your RESILIENCY to life stressors can be a direct reflection of your nutrient status. You may be depressed partially because your tolerance for stress is low due to nutrient insufficiency.

You may not be able to absorb your B12 or folate correctly, even with supplementation. You may be devoid of much-needed fats like DHA or fat-soluble vitamins like A because you are relying on your body to convert them from plant-based foods. But there are genetic variations in how well people can accomplish this. And the toll on mental health due to depletion of nutrient stores can happen in six months or over 7 years. But I am telling you that in the clients attempting vegan who come to my practice, that add one or more animal foods back in, get better almost immediately.

And that is my experience as a mental health counselor.

Can some people improve on vegan? At first, absolutely. Especially if they are doing a whole foods Vegan diet that gets rid of all that nasty processed food pretending to be food. There will be an immediate increase in nutrients overall, just by cutting out highly processed foods. But over time, their nutrient stores will decrease. And one of those nutrients is the macronutrient of protein. Plant-based proteins are just not as bioavailable as animal-based proteins. And complete proteins are needed to be broken down into amino acids. Amino acids like tryptophan, which you need to make serotonin. Amino acids like glycine and cysteine which you need to upregulate powerful antioxidant systems needed to maintain brain health. And this is also why a vegan or nutritionally insufficient vegetarian diet is not the best diet for depression.

If you feel you must be Vegan you need to have very careful supplementation and constantly test nutrient status through functional testing. And please listen to your body and mind. Monitor your mental health symptoms carefully, because they are a reflection of your nutrient status.

So now that we have discussed what not to do as a diet for depression, we can talk about what options are available for general mental health and in particular what is a good diet for depression.

Paleo diets are great for general mental health

Paleo diets are a great diet for mental health in general. They include bioavailable nutrient-rich animal foods that help you get all those vitamin and mineral cofactors you need. A paleo diet also excludes some of the more allergen-inducing foods, such as dairy (in some versions) and gluten. It also excludes grains and legumes that can have anti-nutrient properties that deplete nutrient stores.

The paleo diet is great for an entire family to adopt as it is easy to cook for and gives guidelines to adopt a nutrient-rich whole foods diet. I often recommend this as a diet for general mental health, particularly after working with clients to eliminate processed foods or who are recovering from a vegan or nutritionally inadequate vegetarian diet.

There is a great article by Georgia Ede, MD regarding the details of why a paleo diet is excellent for mental health here: Six Reasons to Go Paleo for Mental Health

But this blog post is not about a diet for general mental health. This blog post is about the best diet for depression. And the best diet for depression may not be the paleo diet, because of the following reasons:

  1. Paleo can be too high in carbohdyrates for people with insulin resistance, causing shifts in blood sugar that can exacerbate symptoms of depression
  2. Psychiatric illness is a form of metabolic disorder and Paleo may be too high in carbohdyrates to treat a metabolic disorder manifesting in the brain
  3. Paleo diets are often too high in carbohdyrates to encourage consistent ketone production, and ketones are signalling bodies that have distinct benefits to treat mental illness like depression

Ketogenic diets work best for depression

The best diet for depression is a ketogenic diet. It has to be a well-formulated, nutrient-rich, and whole foods ketogenic diet if you are using it to treat depression. You cannot be buying highly processed foods that say “keto” on the package and think you are going to put your depression into remission, because of all the reasons we already discussed above.

Psychiatric disorders are acknowledged in the research literature to be disorders of brain metabolism, and a ketogenic diet is very much a metabolic intervention that improves energy metabolism in the brain.

Even if you consider yourself a healthy individual who is likely insulin sensitive, large surges of blood sugar can disrupt delicate brain metabolism (ever been hangry?). If you need to eat every two hours in order to feel ok, this is a clue that you have a metabolic issue going on in your brain, and that you need to switch fuel sources and improve insulin sensitivity. Ketogenic diets are great for that.

And finally, and possibly most importantly, ketogenic diets have some amazing effects that will likely work better than any psychiatric medication you have tried for your depression. I have a huge in-depth article about how a ketogenic diet can treat depression here. If you are not up for a long and in-depth explanation there is a much shorter one here.

But the major points you need to know are that ketones are able to turn your genes off and on in ways that are really supportive and protective of brains. They produce an alternative fuel for sluggish parts of the brain, help balance neurotransmitters, and make your cell membranes work better. And specific to depression, they plummet inflammation. They directly reduce inflammation by influencing signaling pathways in the inflammatory response. Which as you know from the article about neuroinflammation and depression, is truly priceless.

You may need to fine-tune your ketogenic diet to address potential sources of inflammation. You may have allergies to eggs, dairy, or nuts that are causing inflammation, and you may want to get testing done to see if you need to eliminate those for a period of time while your gut heals. But that’s ok. As long as you focus on a well-formulated, whole foods ketogenic diet, there are plenty of recipes with meat and low carbohydrate vegetables that can help you reach your goals.

Share this or other blog posts I have written with friends and family suffering from mental illness. Let people know there is hope!

If you have not already, please read the other two articles in this series:

You may also find the following blog posts useful:

You can learn more about me here. If you would like to contact me for a consultation you can do so here. If you just have a simple question please do not hesitate to reach out. I hope you have found this blog post to be helpful on your wellness journey.

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