Pumpkin (and its seeds!) will brighten your winter days.
Fall and winter can be brutal for people with depression. It gets dark early, resulting in far less exposure to mood-brightening sunlight, plus colder temperatures can make you just want to stay in bed.
In addition, it’s a time of year abounding in the sugar-laden, high-fat holiday foods that are least likely to benefit our mental health.
“It’s a challenging time for eaters,” says?Drew Ramsey, MD, a nutritional psychiatrist and the founder of the Brain Food Clinic in New York City. “There’s lots of delicious stuff that oftentimes isn’t so great for our mood.”
Jerlyn Jones, RDN, agrees, pointing out that the relationship between an unhealthy diet and depression is often a vicious cycle.
“If you have a poor diet, then you're going to feel more depressed. And when you feel more depressed, you're probably going to eat more of those types of foods,” explains Jones, who is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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The Science Behind How Food Affects Your Mood
The good news: Diet is a modifiable risk factor for depression. In other words, simply loading up on whole foods like fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts, legumes, and the like can improve symptoms of this mood disorder, according to a review published in May 2020 in the journal Nutrition Reviews.
Exactly how important is the link between diet and depression? Very, suggests a study published in March 2021 in the Journal of Affective Disorders, which found that people whose diets were high in soda, artificial juice, and other poor-quality foods were 39 percent more likely to experience major depressive episodes than people whose diets were filled with nutrient-dense foods.
The problem is that when people feel stressed and depressed, they tend to crave comforting foods that are higher in sugar, salt, and fat, Jones notes. Unfortunately, the instant relief you experience from those foods — especially the sugar-laden ones — dissolves quickly, which then can cause your mood to crash.
Not to mention that filling up on so-called “junk food” can make it hard to receive enough of the essential nutrients that the brain needs to function at its best, including B vitamins, folate, and magnesium.
“These vitamins and minerals have been inversely associated with depressive disorders,” Jones says. “Foods that are high in different nutrients can make you feel so much better.”
A healthy diet can also promote the production of neurotransmitters in the brain, chemical messengers that help regulate mood and emotions. One neurotransmitter shown to be affected by diet is serotonin, which increases calmness and can help regulate mood, Jones says. A shortage of neurotransmitters like serotonin may contribute to depression,?Mayo Clinic notes.
Best Foods to Choose During Fall and Winter
Wondering which healthy cold-weather foods can improve your mood? Experts advise increasing your intake of these five.
Brussels Sprouts Are High in Folate
These cruciferous vegetables are rich in folate — a B vitamin that helps with mood regulation in the brain, Jones says.?Studies have shown that B vitamins like folic acid — a form of folate — may benefit people with depression, according to a?review published in June 2015 in?the Journal of Nutrition.
“This nutrient is linked to brain activity and increasing our moods. Eating foods on a daily basis that are high in folate will help significantly improve the way you feel,” Jones says.
Try adding raw, shredded Brussels sprouts to salads, or cut them in half, and toss them with olive oil and spices, and roast them until brown.
Pomegranates Are Rich in Antioxidants
Another great fall food to eat regularly is pomegranate, a fruit high in antioxidants, Jones says. And it’s especially easy to reap this benefit because drinking pomegranate juice can significantly increase the number of antioxidants you take in, Jones notes.
In addition to their antioxidant content, pomegranates contain polyphenols, which have anti-inflammatory properties, according to a review article published in August 2017 in the journal Nutrients. “Inflammation is one of the root causes of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems,” Ramsey says.
Pumpkins Boast a High Magnesium Content
These perennially popular fall fruits contain magnesium, which has been linked to a lower risk of depressive symptoms and disorders in?a systematic review published in June 2020 in the journal Nutrients.
Fitting this squash into your diet is easier than you may think — pumpkins are incredibly versatile. Try adding pureed pumpkin to soups, smoothies, and pasta sauces. Or simply snack on pumpkin seeds or toss them in a fall salad. “Pumpkin seeds are really one of our top [food] recommendations,” Ramsey says.
RELATED: How to Cook Every Part of a Pumpkin
Sweet Potatoes Are Chock-Full of Vitamins
Usually harvested in September and October, sweet potatoes pack several essential nutrients — in particular, vitamin C. A?review published in February 2018 in the journal Current Medical Science concluded that vitamin C may offer numerous mental health benefits, including reducing inflammation and preventing depressive symptoms.
Winter Squash Is High in Vitamin B6
Winter squash comes in many forms — acorn squash, butternut squash, and spaghetti squash, to name a few. And each of them contain high amounts of vitamin B6, a nutrient shown to positively affect mood. In a study published in October 2020 in the International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, a lower intake of vitamin B6 was associated with an increased risk of depression among more than 3,300 women.
More Tips for Healthy Seasonal Fare
Now that colder weather is upon us, Ramsey says it’s a good time to consume more soup, especially clam chowders and seafood stews. Dishes that contain mussels, clams, and oysters are dense with nutrients like magnesium, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, another nutrient that research suggests benefits people with depression.
If you’re in the mood for something sweet, Ramsey advises swapping sugary holiday desserts for dark chocolate, which is packed antioxidants and fiber.
“There’s now some interesting data about how the nutrients in dark chocolate are stimulating but also good for the brain, in the sense that people who eat dark chocolate tend to have less depression,” Ramsey says.
Data from a survey of more than 13,000 U.S. adults, published in July 2019 in Depression & Anxiety, showed that chocolate, especially dark chocolate, may be tied to a reduced risk of depressive symptoms.
Along with avoiding excess sugar, Ramsey advises being mindful of how much alcohol you consume around the holiday season.
“There’s a lot of drinking during the holidays, and alcohol can be awful if you have depression,” Ramsey says. “It tends to make people feel better in the short term, and then worse the next day.”
If you need help planning good-mood-friendly meals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s online tool?MyPlate offers?quizzes and hundreds of recipes to get you started.