Do you find yourself reaching for that bag of chips or popcorn, chocolate, or ice cream after a terrible day? If yes, then you are not alone. All of us, at some point or other, have found ourselves digging into food when we feel bad.

While scientists know a link between mood and food (stress eating comes to mind) exists, the actual relationship between mood disorders such as depression and food is not clear. They have not yet been able to crack the code between diet and depression.

That brings us to a question – do dietary habits influence our mental health?

Scientists Still Searching

The scientists have no clear answer to the question of whether food and depression have a link.

A 2017 research found that people with symptoms of moderate-to-severe depression saw an improvement in their mood when they consumed a healthy diet for nearly three to four months, along with nutritional counseling sessions.

The menu focused on fresh and whole foods, which was packed with nutrients. Restrictions on the consumption of junk food, sugar, caffeine and sweets also saw a reduction in symptoms of depression.
The study found that depressive symptoms like anxiety and mood saw enough improvement to reach the remission criteria in about 30% of the participants.

This is not a one-off study. A 2005 study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that dietary factors and depression and obesity were closely associated.

Also, a survey conducted by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2011 showed that women who followed a diet containing an increased quantity of food rich in vitamin D were less likely to develop depression than women who ate less vitamin D rich food.

Some Links

All these studies have alluded to a correlation between food and mood, but none of them have been able to establish the exact relationship between the risk of depression and diet.
The scientists have not been able to pinpoint one nutritional factor that could either increase or decrease depression. There is minimal empirical data that can link the risk of depression with unhealthy dietary habits.

A study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity in 2014 used data available from Nurses' Health study to find a link between diet filled with junk food, refined grains, soft drinks laced with sugar, and red meat with depression.

Another meta-analysis, published in 2018 in the European Journal of Nutrition suggested that high meat consumption can cause depression.

However, with so many factors being linked with depression, it’s not possible in teasing out exactly which dietary food habit can result in depression. There are modifiable lifestyle factors like smoking, dietary choices, physical activity, which can affect depression but these don’t act independently.

Depression, as in various other chronic conditions, stems from a complex interaction between environment and genetics. Even though scientists know that depression can be associated with modifiable risk factors, they cannot determine the percentage of depression related to a specific element since they are interrelated.

That said, one should not take focus away from eating good food that protects your mental health. Scientists have linked a Mediterranean-style diet with a decreased risk of depression. A Mediterranean diet consists of fruits, olive oil, vegetables, lean protein (fish and protein), and whole grains, and a reduced amount of unhealthy fats and red meat.
Even if any future research determines the Mediterranean diet doesn't necessarily reduce depression, there are various other reasons for adopting this healthy diet. For instance, this diet has been linked with better cognitive function, lower blood pressure, and fewer incidents of cardiovascular and diabetic events.

Adopting a high-quality dietary pattern like the Mediterranean diet is beneficial not only for depression but also for overall reduced risk of several chronic conditions, which can, in turn, result in depression at a later stage.