Nourish your mind: Unlocking the power of nutrition in treating depression

Mental Health

by Dr. Randall F. Moore

Mar 7, 2024

Does nutrition affect mental health, especially depression? Can food, vitamins or other dietary supplements help treat mental health problems? Let’s explore the role of highly processed foods in depression and discuss a few foods and supplements that can help treat mild depression.

Does highly processed food cause depression? 

First, we need to understand highly processed foods and how they stimulate inflammation in the brain and the rest of the body. Food manufacturers create highly processed foods by removing most or all of the fiber, protein and sometimes fat. They then often add salt, unhealthy fats, gluten and sugars or artificial sweeteners.

Highly processed foods are also soft and made of smaller particles. Soft foods with little fiber or protein can be eaten faster and small particles can be digested faster.  

Digestion breaks some foods down into sugars. Fast digestion of highly processed foods leads to a rapid rise in blood sugar. When blood sugar rises rapidly, the pancreas makes a lot of insulin to try to bring sugar down to a normal level. The abnormally large production of insulin causes inflammation. 

What are the most anti-inflammatory foods?

Inflammation is complicated and involves many chemicals and types of white blood cells. Excessive inflammation contributes to many health problems and conditions, including heart disease, depression, dementia, wrinkles and loss of muscle. Compared to people who eat relatively little highly processed food, those who eat a lot of highly processed food are up to 41-58% more likely to develop depression over several years.

It is possible to improve your brain health through your diet. The table below lists inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods. Try to make small steps toward eating fewer inflammatory foods and adding more anti-inflammatory foods into your diet. 


  • Artificially sweetened fruits
  • Candy, chips, corn tortillas, cornbread, rice, rice noodles and wheat products, including breads, pastas, tortillas, crackers, cereals, cakes, doughnuts, muffins, cookies, pancakes and waffles. Most highly processed foods also contain added sugar, salt and sometimes added unhealthy fats such as trans-fats
  • Grain-fed meats, processed meats
  • Dairy products with added sugar or salt
  • Many seeds and nuts
  • Canola oil, hydrogenated oils, margarine, shortening, mayonnaise and trans-fat
  • Soft drinks, fruit juice
  • Refined sugars, artificial sweeteners


  • Fruits. The lowest sugar fruits are cantaloupes, peaches, raspberries and strawberries
  • Vegetables, especially yellow vegetables such as carrots, yellow squash, sweet potatoes and pumpkin; avocado, lettuce, spinach, green beans, snow peas and sugar snap peas
  • Salmon, cod, tuna, shrimp, white meat chicken, bison, venison, elk and eggs
  • Dairy products without added sugar or salt
  • Walnuts
  • Avocado or olive oil
  • Water, green tea
  • Honey, but only in very small amounts

Nutrition and mental health: The importance of diet in depression

The next section applies to people with “uncomplicated” depression—an episode that happens without a history of depression, and not to people with severe or recurrent depression. If you are concerned about significant depression, then in addition to the possible interventions noted below, talk with your primary care doctor or mental health professional.

In addition to eating more whole foods and fewer processed foods, dietary supplements may also help treat depression. Keep in mind that supplements and vitamins vary a lot in quality and standardization. Study your options carefully before buying any particular brand and talk to your doctor if you have any questions.

Vitamin D

Most Americans have low levels of Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps regulate calcium metabolism and inflammation. Taking Vitamin D may lessen symptoms of depression.  

You may want to ask your doctor to check your Vitamin D level. If your Vitamin D level is low, consider taking a supplement that also contains Vitamin K2 which helps regulate where calcium is stored in the body. But, if you have a blood clotting disorder or take a blood thinner, talk to your doctor before taking Vitamin K.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory. There are two types of Omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA. Supplements with greater than 60% EPA may help treat depression.


Curcumin is extracted from the saffron plant and is anti-inflammatory. 250 mg twice a day may modestly lessen depression, especially in people who sleep too much and eat too much when they are depressed.

St. John’s wort

St. John’s wort may help treat uncomplicated depression as effectively as serotonin specific reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants. However, St. John’s wort interferes with many drugs and so should likely not be used by people who take or wish to take other psychiatric medications.  

Other supplements

There is not good evidence that Vitamin B12, folate or SAMe supplements are effective in treating depression.

How to get support for depression 

Eating a lot of processed food is like setting your brain on fire. Don’t expect that you can eat a lot of processed food and set your brain on fire, then simply extinguish the fire with vitamins or supplements.   

By far the best approach is to eat whole food and avoid creating a fire in the first place.  But remember that good food and supplements are not cure-alls. If you need further help, talk to your doctor or seek out a mental health professional. Good nutrition, supplements, medications, psychotherapy and other treatments can make a real difference in how you feel and function.

Talk to your doctor or find mental health services near you



About the Author

Randall F. Moore, MD, is a psychiatrist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Mental Health Clinic – Temple and a clinical professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine.

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