By Maryann Hammers
You’re having a rough day. So you treat yourself to candy, a cookie, or a vending-machine snack. After all, you deserve a little comforting, right?
Be prepared: Your bad day is about to get worse. And the bluer you are, the deeper you’re likely to compulsively dig into the cookie jar or bag of chips, making you feel even more miserable.
It’s a vicious circle—unhealthy food can worsen depression. And depression leads to unhealthy eating, studies show.
Women who binged reported that their moods significantly worsened after unhealthy eating behaviors, according to Pennsylvania State University researchers, who gathered data from 127 college-aged women.1
Julie Upton, RD, co-author of The Real Skinny (Penguin, 2013), says, “After eating something that you think you shouldn’t, you feel blue about yourself and the choice that you’ve just made.”
People who consume the most fast food, commercial baked goods, and processed foods (such as fries, fried chicken, and packaged biscuits, cookies, and cakes) were 37 percent more likely to become depressed than people who avoided junk foods—and the more they consumed, the greater the depression risk, according to a 2011 study2 of 12,059 Spanish men and women, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
A similar study3 of 196 overweight African-American women, aged 25 to 51, had similar results: Those whose diets were laden with saturated fat and sugar, as well as those who were emotional eaters, were more likely to have symptoms of depression. And a British study4 of 3,486 middle-aged men and women also found that those whose diets consisted heavily of sweet desserts, fried foods, processed meat, refined grains (plain white processed carbs), and high-fat dairy were more likely to become depressed.
But a diet mostly made up of vegetables, fruits, and fish seemed to help prevent depression—regardless of other sociodemographic or health variables.
Wondering what that bag of fries has to do with the frown on your face? “It may be a connection to inflammation,” says Sharon Palmer, RD, a registered dietitian and author of The Plant-Powered Diet (The Experiment, 2012). “An unhealthy diet promotes inflammation, which can lead to a laundry list of problems, including depression. People who are depressed have higher levels of chronic inflammation in their bodies.
“A diet rich in whole plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, tea or coffee, nuts, seeds, and omega-3 rich fish protects against inflammation and depression,” Palmer adds. “Don’t waste your food choices on low-nutrient foods that don’t fuel your body.”