San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Poor diet contributes to depression

Eating a diet high in trans fats increases the risk of depression, according to Spanish researchers. A recent study analyzed the diet and lifestyle of 12,000 volunteers over six years. None had been diagnosed with depression previously, compared to 657 diagnoses by the end of the study. Those with a high consumption of trans fats were 48 percent more likely to be at risk of depression than those who did not consume such fats. Simultaneously, the researchers attributed a higher consumption of fats from fish and vegetable oils to a slight decrease in the risk of depression.

Fats are a necessary part of our diet and a major building block for the brain. In fact, low-fat diets in general have been linked to depression. Dietary fats form an integral part of the nerve cells that manage communication within the brain, and also between the brain and the rest of our bodies, with the types of fats we eat reflected in this structure. Mono- and polyunsaturated oils, which are fluid at room temperature, create fluid nerve cells. Saturated fats, which are solid, result in more rigid nerve structures, and trans fats lead to nerve cells that may not work properly, thus causing a defect in our internal communication system.

Ideally you should strive to eliminate or at least minimize trans fats by avoiding processed and fried foods, and to control saturated fat intake by modifying consumption of meats and dairy products. Instead, increase the proportion of mono- and polyunsaturated fats by regularly consuming oily fish, olive oil, nuts, seeds and their oils (sesame-seed, sunflower, safflower and walnut oils are available in Costa Rica). Avoid frying the fish or heating these oils, as high temperatures destroy their health benefits and can make them harmful. An exception is olive oil, which can be gently heated.

You can include other mood-boosting foods in your diet as well. The amino acid tryptophan is the main ingredient for producing the depression-busting neurotransmitter serotonin. Good tryptophan sources are chicken, turkey, cottage cheese, milk, yogurt, bananas, tuna and sunflower seeds. However, tryptophan has to be converted to serotonin, and for this you need vitamins B3, B6 and C, folic acid and zinc. Complex unrefined carbohydrates increase the amount of tryptophan transported to the brain, so combine your tryptophan-rich food with a small serving of complex carbohydrate such as pasta – but avoid additional protein-rich foods in the same meal, as the amino acids in these can interfere with the process. 

You can now create your own “happy meal.” Try grilled chicken (tryptophan, vitamin B3) on whole-wheat pasta (complex carbohydrate), mixed with spinach, broccoli and red peppers (vitamins B6 and C and folate), generously sprinkled with sesame seeds (zinc, omega fats) and a dash of olive oil. Follow with strawberries (potassium for good nerve communication), natural yogurt and chopped almonds (extra tryptophan, zinc, folate and potassium). Finish on a high with additional mood-boosting phenols and antioxidants from a square or two of 70-percent-cocoa-solids chocolate – yes, I said “chocolate”! 

Sources: PLoS ONE (, Natural News (, Psychology Today (, National Center for Biotechnology Information (

Julie Godfrey, B.Sc. (Hons), is a nutritional therapy practitioner and full member of the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT). For more information, see or e-mail

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