Some Americans reach for so-called “comfort” fare when they’re feeling down: fried and fast foods, sweets, and highly processed and refined convenience foods. Unfortunately, many others eat these as the basis of their overall diet, which means that they’re consuming an overload of total fat, saturated fat, refined sugar, and sodium on a daily basis. That’s why we call it the Standard American Diet, appropriately designated as the SAD diet—and, thanks to the well-established connection between food and mood, rather than pepping you up, it’s definitely dragging you down.
A healthy diet should instead include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and fish, which offer essential nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, folate, and fiber, encouraging better brain function and a healthier body. Staying away from toxic foods is a must, because they can actually change the chemistry and function of your brain—and can even promote depression. With more than 7% of American adults struggling with depression, it’s important to recognize that diet may be playing a role in depressive symptoms.
THE SAD DIET CONNECTION TO DEPRESSION
As we know, food can act as medicine or poison to our bodies and can perpetuate healthy or unhealthy habits. For example, food has influence over six major neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin. Those with low serotonin levels (associated with depression and anxiety) often crave carbohydrate-rich foods, like bread and sugary sweets. That’s because carbohydrates raise serotonin levels and therefore temporarily increase feelings of well-being.
Unfortunately, that masks the damage being done on a deeper level, and eating the SAD diet creates a never-ending cycle of consuming and then craving unhealthy foods. A high-carb diet has been tied to inflammation and depression, while a 2020 study found that consuming a SAD diet for just one week can deteriorate brain function in memory tests and increase the desire for junk food. This is understandable when you consider that junk food impairs function in the region of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in both appetite regulation and memory.
This vicious cycle helps explain why so many Americans are trapped into consuming the SAD diet, a major factor in our country’s overweight and obesity epidemic. Currently, approximately 70% of the American population is overweight, with 40% falling into the obese category.
On the other hand, one study found that diets higher in plant foods, such as vegetables and fruits, as well as lean proteins, are associated with a reduced risk for depression. Those who ate more processed and sugary foods were associated with an increased risk of depression. In other words, as the old saying goes, you are what you eat on the SAD diet.
THE SAD DIET LEADS TO DEPRESSED AND OVERWEIGHT KIDS
If the SAD diet is contributing to so many adults’ depression, what is it doing to our young ones? According to the CDC, an estimated 2.7 million kids ages 3-17 in the U.S. had a diagnosis of depression. And that was pre-pandemic. Updated statistics from 2021 show that 44% of high school students felt a persistent sense of sadness or hopelessness.
Since September is National Childhood Obesity Month, it’s a good time to remind ourselves about how poor dietary choices are impacting our kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity affected 19.7% of children and adolescents from ages 2 to 19 years old from 2017 to 2020—amounting to about 14.7 million young people. The CDC notes that this can increase the chances of many obesity-related conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, breathing problems such as asthma and sleep apnea, and joint problems. Therefore, it’s never too early to start eating a healthier diet.
The pandemic hasn’t help. Many kids—and adults—adopted unhealthy eating habits during the lockdowns. A 2021 study found an increase in mindless eating and snacking and an overall uptick in food intake. And study of over 432,000 kids ages 2-19 found that during the pandemic, body mass index (BMI) increased at nearly twice the pre-pandemic rate.
5 SAD FOODS TO AVOID
To help make better dietary choices, first, let’s look at 5 foods to avoid:
- Vegetable oils, including canola, corn, safflower, and soy, contain higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which have been associated with inflammation, depressive disorder, memory issues, and cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s.
- Trans fats can also create inflammation and are found in partially hydrogenated oils, still found in many processed convenience foods, like store-bought baked goods, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, fried foods, margarine, and more.
- Alcohol can increase depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts and behavior. One 2019 report noted that psychiatric disorders are commonly observed alongside alcohol use disorder, and depressive disorders are the most common.
- High-glycemic foods, such as sweetened drinks, processed meats, and processed baked goods, have been linked to a greater risk of depression through various research, including a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Note that many artificial sweeteners are not better—aspartame, saccharine (found in Sweet’N Low), and sucralose (sold as Splenda), can help create high insulin levels, which are associated with a higher risk for depression. Try safer sugar alternatives instead.
- Toxic fish—those varieties that contain high levels of mercury—can be dangerous. Exposure to heavy metals has been linked to depression and anxiety, among other health concerns.
GOOD FOODS FOR BETTER MOODS
The good news is, you can add plenty of healthier, happier ingredients to your and your kids’ diet to help boost serotonin and potentially lower the incidence of depression. Reach for sweet potatoes, hummus, apples, peaches, bananas, figs, pineapples, oranges or tangerines, grapes, blueberries, pears, and mangoes. (Just be mindful of pesticides levels in certain produce, or buy organic.) These foods, along with a mood-boosting exercise regimen, can make a world of difference in preventing or treating depression—without any negative side effects—for you and your entire family.
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