Are you feeling dissatisfied with the progress you’re making on your plant-based diet? You may or may not realize it, but depression may be playing a role in keeping you from the healthy lifestyle you’re looking for. Making the switch to a plant-based diet takes energy, effort, intention and motivation. Whether your depression is mild, moderate or severe, long-term or short-term, it may be affecting your ability to successfully transition to or stick with your plant-based eating goals.
What is Depression?
If you struggle with depression, you’re not alone. In fact, as many as 16.2 million Americans, or 6.7 percent of the U.S. population, suffer from a major depressive episode in any given year. Globally, more than 300 million people of all ages are affected by some form of depression, and depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Nearly twice as many women as men are diagnosed with depression.
Major depression, also known as clinical depression, is a serious, often recurring, mood disorder lasting at least two weeks that interferes with the activities of daily life. Patterns of eating, sleeping, socializing, exercising and the ability to concentrate and perform work can be compromised.
Symptoms such as down mood, slowed-down thinking, speech and/or movement, unexplained physical symptoms, low energy, lack of interest and pleasure in activities and feelings of hopelessness, emptiness, worthlessness and guilt can be severe and persistent and may require long-term treatment.
But you don’t have to suffer from full-blown major depression to feel the effects of a depressive mood. Other forms of depression, such as seasonal affective disorder, postpartum depression, bipolar depression and persistent depressive disorder, also known as dysthymia, can also negatively impact your daily habits, energy levels, motivation and choices.
Persistent depressive disorder is chronic low-level depression that can last two years or more. It affects about 2 percent of adult women and 1 percent of adult men in the U.S.
5 Tips for Managing Depression on a Plant-Based Diet
1. Eat Lots of Mood-Boosting Whole Plant Foods. When it comes to depression, there’s lots of hopeful news for plant-based eaters. Researchers have found that plant-based eaters experience more energy and significantly fewer negative emotions than omnivores. Other studies have shown that the more fruits and vegetables you eat on a given day, the happier, calmer and more energetic you may feel.
A review of 41 studies indicates that people who eat diets rich in plant foods have lower rates of depression. Although fish is included in this review as having anti-depressant effects, meat and dairy consumption is best limited.
Plant-based diets are inherently high in insoluble fiber, a non-digestible type of fiber found primarily in plant foods. Eating a high-fiber diet supports healthy gut bacteria, and science is currently finding links between your gut bacteria, or intestinal microbiome, and any number of conditions, including anxiety and depression.
Diets rich in plant-based foods are anti-inflammatory because plant foods are high in antioxidants and low in fat. Researchers are increasingly finding links between chronic inflammation in the body and many common chronic illnesses, including depression.
Finally, please check out my article, “Help for Depression, Stress, and Anxiety: Mood-Boosting Plant Foods That Might Surprise You” to learn about specific whole foods, such as avocados and bananas, that are especially helpful in supporting your body nutritionally when you’re feeling low.
2. Set Realistic and Specific Goals. A 2013 study from the University of Liverpool found that depressed people tend to create “more nebulous, unattainable” goals in comparison with people unaffected by depression, whose goals tend to be more realistic and attainable. Take time to think through your goals and see if they are an appropriate match for your current situation.
If you’re struggling with depression and have low energy, keep that in mind. Have compassion for yourself and please don’t set yourself up for failure, which may, in turn, contribute to feelings of low self-esteem and unworthiness and thereby exacerbate your already depressed mood. An example of a nebulous goal, for instance, is “I’m going to eat more plant-based food.”
A more specific goal might be “I’m going to eat two plant-based breakfasts per week,” or “I’m going to eat fresh fruit for dessert instead of cookies, candy or ice cream.” You get the idea, and you can do it!
3. Acknowledge and Reward Every Success. It’s so important when you’re depressed to notice and appreciate yourself for everything you get right, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant. Sometimes simply buying fresh produce at the grocery store instead of junk or highly-processed food is a major accomplishment when you’re feeling down.
Or maybe just getting to the grocery store at all was a Herculean task when your energy, focus and motivation is so profoundly challenged. Please be kind to yourself and shift your focus to any and all signs of progress, and away from where you may be falling short. As a friend of mine once said to me, “Do you make a tomato plant grow by beating it?”
Focusing on your shortcomings will only further erode your already shaky confidence, while focusing on even tiny successes may help you feel even just a little bit better.
4. Make Things Easier for Yourself. When you’re feeling poorly it’s time to make things as easy and convenient as possible for yourself. This is not, for example, the time to attempt a very complicated recipe with exotic ingredients that you’ve never made before. Keep things simple. If you don’t have the energy to cook, find a local eatery that serves healthy plant-based food and treat yourself to as many meals as you can afford, or order take-out.
Pre-packaged or frozen plant-based foods might be just the thing for you at home. Buying pre-made salads, for instance, or frozen chopped veggies might be what makes it possible for you to have a good meal. You might want to make your own homemade plant milk, but if you don’t have the energy and the thought of cleaning your blender is overwhelming, forgive yourself and buy the best pre-packaged plant milk you can find.
As much as possible, make peace with the fact that you’re compromised, at least for the moment, and cut yourself some good old-fashioned slack. Cut every corner, take every shortcut, lower your standards and reduce all extra labor and effort. Make things easy!
Again, you’re setting yourself up for success by being realistic, and every single small success can serve to enhance your self-esteem and uplift your down mood. You might not like the space that you’re in, but knowing and starting where you are is the path to feeling better.
5. Eat What You Love. Let go of your concerns for perfectly-balanced nutrition. Loss of pleasure is a symptom of depression and please keep that in mind as you choose what to eat. If you love roasted almonds, for instance, then indulge in a few more. Don’t force yourself to eat things that you don’t like because “they’re good for you” or you “should” eat them.
Relax ideas of breakfast, lunch or dinner, and let your body and your taste buds guide you. As much as possible let go of “shoulds” and try to find even a small degree of pleasure in eating. If chocolate avocado pudding is your thing, well, heck, go ahead and eat it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Loosen up the rules for the time being. You can always make more ambitious nutritional goals once you feel better.
Depression is No Fun
If you’re affected by depression, plant-based nutrition can help support your body, mind, and spirit during this challenging time, but only if you use food as a support and not a reason to criticize, punish and judge yourself.
Remember that depression is an illness – you didn’t create it, and healing depression is no more a matter of willpower or character than is recovering from a cold, the flu or muscle strain.
If you’re struggling with persistent down mood, please seek the help you need by consulting with your healthcare provider and pursuing appropriate treatment.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.