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In recent decades, the medical establishment has increasingly recognized the positive role diet plays in the prevention, treatment, and management of a variety of disorders: heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, strokes, and even depression. While the need to follow nutritional guidelines makes sense for the first four health concerns, treating depression with diet may come as a surprise to many.

However, considering that over 14 million people suffer from depression in the U.S. alone, it makes sense to consider all options in providing relief. Studies and clinical experience demonstrate the benefits of a nutritional approach in general and certain foods and nutrients in particular.

  • Carbohydrates: Serotonin is a brain chemical linked to mood. Those who crave carbs may be experiencing a drop in levels of this substance. The answer, however, is not to fill up on sweet desserts. Whole grain, fruits, veggies, and legumes add the right kind of carbs to a person’s diet.
  • Omega-3s:  According to a variety of surveys, national diets high in fish are linked to a smaller rate of depression. The magic ingredients are omega-3 fatty acids. A recent analysis of various high-quality studies offers proof. Not only did consuming omega-3s lessen symptoms by 53% on average, some studies demonstrated an effectiveness twice that of antidepressants (minus the side effects). These beneficial fats work because they boost production of chemicals responsible for brain-cell connections. Regularly consuming oily fish like mackerel and salmon and flax and pumpkin seeds—along with fish-oil supplements—are sure to boost mood and alleviate depressive symptoms.
  • Protein: High-protein foods contain healthy amounts of the amino acid tryptophan, another serotonin-booster. Including a choice of low-fat cheese, legumes, and lean meats several times a day will go far to keep the brain sharp and increase energy—a win-win situation for heightened moods. Even better, follow a Mediterranean-style diet (vegetables, fruits, cereals, legumes, nuts, and fish).
  • Vitamins and minerals: Free radicals, unstable atoms with the capacity to adversely affect a person’s health, can inflict damage on the brain. One way to limit their destructive power is to remember the ABCs. Antioxidant-rich substances include: beta-carotene, found in abundance in apricots, peaches, spinach, and sweet potato; vitamin C-laden foods like grapefruit, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes; and vitamin E, obtained from nuts, seeds, and oils. Nervous-system friendly B vitamins are also worthy of notice, especially B12 (found in beef liver, salmon, and yogurt) and folate (sources include green leafy vegetables, nuts, and eggs).

While people are what they eat, there is so much more to optimum emotional health. Physical activity is a proven mood-booster. Taking time out for the little pleasures in life can enhance the effectiveness of the best antidepressant. And since no man (or woman) is an island, spending time in the company of family and friends—and engaging in talk therapy to supplement medicinal treatment—relieves symptoms of depression. Yet, all these mood-enhancers go hand in hand. Perhaps it is no surprise that an enjoyable meal (whether eaten alone or, better yet, together with loved ones) has such a positive effect on a person’s emotional well-being.