Balanced Lifestyle

Since it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to think about the many ways we can nourish and support our own mental health.

According to CDC, 1 in 6 adults will experience depression in their lifetime.1 And while depression can occur for a multitude of reasons, there are ways to potentially reduce the risk, like exercise, social interaction, psychotherapy and medication. However, new and ongoing research suggests diet might also play a supporting role in mental well-being.

Diet and Mental Health

A recent meta-analysis (the combination of data from multiple studies), found that diets abundant in fruits and vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, low fat dairy, and fish, with a reduced intake of other animal products, such as processed meat and high-fat dairy, tend to be associated with a lower risk for depression.2 Although more research representing diverse populations is needed, it’s encouraging that this type of eating pattern is similar to the recommended Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And it can take many different forms. Colorful, veggie-forward recipes, like this Spinach Walnut Raspberry Salad, are a great start. Easily prepared fish dishes such as Salmon with Asian Walnut Slaw for a weeknight meal is another delicious way to get nourishing nutrients.

What do all these foods have in common? It’s not completely clear. But researchers theorize the synergistic effects of nutrients and bioactive compounds in fruits and vegetables may help protect cells from damage, including those in the brain.2,3 So you might want to load up daily on berries, greens, and other colorful fruits and vegetables. In addition, certain nutrients like folic acid and omega-3 fatty acids seem to play a key role.4,5 Low folic acid levels have been associated with depression, particularly in women. Though you can get folic acid in fortified foods like breakfast cereals, you can also get it from common fruits and vegetables like spinach and avocado.

Walnuts are made up primarily of polyunsaturated fats. In fact, it’s the only tree nut that is an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3 essential fatty acid. Because of it’s unique nutrient make up, walnuts stand out from the pack in offering unique potential benefits, and part of the reason why researchers have explored how walnuts in particular may impact mood.

Walnuts and Mental Health

Walnuts might not only play a role in healthy aging by impacting cognitive function. New research suggests eating walnuts may be associated with a lower prevalence of depression symptoms.

One study found that depression scores were 26% lower for walnut eaters compared to people who didn’t eat any type of nuts at all.6 And those who ate other types of nuts saw 8% lower depression scores. It appears that eating nuts in general might have an impact on mood. But walnut eaters experienced an effect that was 3 times higher. And that’s not all. Researchers found walnut eaters who ate just under ¼ cup walnuts per day, enjoyed higher energy levels and better level of concentration.

It’s important to note these new and emerging findings are an association – not a guarantee. Also consider that people who are depressed may have an appetite higher or lower than is typical and experience changes in lifestyle behaviors impacting how they eat and feel. It goes both ways. Feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed may also negatively affect self-care practices like following a healthy diet.

Researchers try to control for these factors when designing studies. But the reality is lifestyle habits, which are more common in adults who eat a certain diet or live in a particular region, could impact the results. In addition, these studies asked participants about their dietary choices over a short period of time, in some cases, over the course of one to two days, which may not represent usual eating patterns.

While there are a number of factors that play into depression, the connection between the foods we eat and the prevalence of depression symptoms is an exciting one to explore. There are many reasons to enjoy plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts (like walnuts), so you could start moving toward a healthier lifestyle by adding them to meals and snacks.

Start the day with this Carrot Cake Smoothie for breakfast. Or sip it for a cool and creamy midday pick-me-up. Boost an everyday pasta recipe by blending walnuts into a traditional pesto like in this Pappardelle with California Walnuts. Or try something new with a plant based taco night starring these Roasted Walnut and Cauliflower Tacos!

Not into cooking tonight? No problem.

Try these easy, no-cook ways to enjoy walnuts:

  • Choose a handful of walnuts for a snack a few times a week.
  • Top your favorite salad with raw or toasted walnuts for crunch.
  • Sprinkle chopped walnuts into overnight oats or over avocado toast!

1Mental Health Conditions: Depression and Anxiety. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

2Li Y, Wei YJ, Sun L, et al. Dietary patterns and depression risk: A meta-analysis. Psychiatry Res. 2017; 253:373-382. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2017.04.020. Epub 2017 Apr 11.

3Molendijk M, Molero P, Ortuño Sánchez-Pedreño F, et al. Diet quality and depression risk: A systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. J Affect Disord. 2018;226:346-354. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2017.09.022. Epub 2017 Sep 23.

4Folate: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health.

5Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health.

6Arab L, Guo R, Elashoff D. Lower Depression Scores among Walnut Consumers in NHANES. Nutrients. 2019;11(2):275.

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