Depression: Your ultimate guide

Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest in daily life. According to the World Health Organisation, around 350 million people globally, of all ages, suffer from depression.

7 foodstuffs that help combat depression

Following a healthy diet can assist in preventing and alleviating this mental illness.

  • Studies show that although there is no diet that can cure or prevent depression, a healthy diet is an important component in the overall treatment of depression. 

    Eating the right foods as part of a balanced diet can bring about chemical changes in your brain, providing the vitamins, minerals, micronutrients and essential fatty acids needed for the optimal production of the neurotransmitters responsible for your moods. Chief among these is serotonin, which also signals your brain that you are full after eating, so by achieving the right levels of this you can, for example, help curb binge-eating and control excess weight – a common cause of low mood, especially in women.

    Try incorporating these mood-boosting foods into a balanced diet.




  • 1. Complex carbs

    There’s a reason why we reach for cake when we feel low – carbohydrates stimulate serotonin production. A study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher Judith Wurtman, author of The Serotonin Power Diet, suggests women are more dependent on carbs for this than men are. She also identifies certain people as ‘carbohydrate cravers,’ as they need more carbs than others and feel irritable or lethargic if they replace these with protein or fat. Refined carbs cause a mood and energy spike followed by a dip that can leave you feeling lower than before. Rather opt for complex, low-glycaemic carbs that provide a slow, steady energy release to help keep your mood elevated.

    EAT: Whole grains like brown rice, wholewheat bread and pasta, oats, and starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots and legumes like beans (kidney, black, lima and pinto), peas, chickpeas and lentils.

  • 2. Omega-3 fatty acids

    Most of us eat too many omega-6 fatty acids (found in eggs, poultry, baked goods and many oils, including canola and sunflower), but not enough omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA and EPA. According to a study at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, US, low levels of omega-3s are linked to depression, impulsivity and pessimism, probably because DHA and EPA have a vital role in cell membrane structure, and so in brain development and function, and ultimately effect mood.

    EAT: Oily fish such as salmon and sardines three to four times weekly, as well as other seafood, flax seeds, chia seeds, meat, nuts (especially walnuts) and nut oils, and omega-3 fortified yoghurt, milk and eggs. DHA and EPA occur only in meat, fish and algae, spirulina and seaweed (think sushi). Consider supplements with omega-3 plus DHA and EPA.

  • 3. Quality proteins

    Fish, meat and certain other proteins are high in tryptophan, an amino acid used by the brain to produce serotonin, with help from B vitamins. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning your body doesn’t produce it, so it must be included in your diet.

    EAT: Fish such as fresh tuna, mackerel, halibut, sardines, oysters, octopus, poultry such as chicken and turkey, beef, lamb and liver, eggs, dairy, and soya, seeds, nuts and peanut butter.

  • 4. Vegetables

    These are rich in folic acid that can help raise serotonin levels, and some also have tryptophan.

    EAT: Mushrooms, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and leafy greens such as spinach, parsnips, citrus fruit, and soy products (beans, milk, tofu).

  • 5. Fruit

    Fruits have many micronutrients needed for optimum serotonin levels, some more than others; some also have tryptophan.

    EAT: Bananas, oranges, honeydew and cantaloupe melons, plums and pineapple, tomatoes and avocado.

  • 6. Dairy products

    These contain lactose, a simple sugar that helps raise serotonin levels.

    EAT: Cheeses, yoghurt, maas, milk.

  • 7. Vitamins

    A balanced diet incorporating a variety of the foods above should provide all the vitamins and minerals you need. A deficiency can contribute to mood swings, anxiety and depression, so if you experience these in spite of improving your diet, ask your doctor or dietitian about taking a supplement like iron, folate, selenium and especially:

    • Vitamin B Complex: B2 and B12 have been linked to mood improvement, and B1 to modulated cognitive performance and improved mood in women. B vitamins are found naturally in grains, cruciferous veges and beans, and include folic acid, which with B12 is vital in helping the liver produce a compound that regulates mood.
    • Vitamin D: This is made by the body with exposure to the sun, or found in oily fish and eggs, and in fortified milk and cereal.