What to Eat When You’re Depressed

The science-backed benefits of low-effort, healthy food

Dana G Smith
Elemental
Published in
5 min readNov 7, 2019

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Illustration: Adrian Mangel

InIn September, writer Alexander Hardy put out a call on Twitter for “quick and uncomplicated ‘depression meals,’” to help a young relative who was struggling. Hardy — who is also a teacher and mental health advocate — said his relative wanted ideas “for when she needs to eat something more nutritious than jelly beans, chips, or packs of ramen but is too tired & spiritually ashy for great effort.”

The query resonated with Twitter users, who answered with over 1,000 suggestions. Top ideas were frozen meals from Trader Joe’s, a big pot of rice with frozen veggies, and either Asian- or Mexican-inspired toppings (miso, soy sauce, and Sriracha versus salsa, black beans, and cheese), protein-rich snacks like nuts or energy bars, bagged salads, a deconstructed sandwich (eat the meat, cheese, and bread separately), and eggs cooked any way. The key, many people said, was to get the biggest caloric impact with the least amount of effort.

“You helped me tonight when I needed someone to bring me up,” one person responded. “I’ve now had soup, a hard boiled egg, and chips and salsa.”

Hardy says he understood the need for simple meal options due to his own experience with depression and anxiety. “When I’m deep in it, [eating] actual meals and not just snacking or eating junk food or surviving off coffee and bubble gum, it can be a struggle,” he says. “When I get anxious, I forget to eat or I’m too anxious to eat or I feel like I don’t deserve to take a pause to eat.”

Straightforward, quick, nutritious meals are desirable to many people regardless of their mental health. But people with depression may be struggling with a clinical lack of energy, as well as deeper-set issues with self-worth.

“When you’re already depressed and you feel like garbage about yourself, you’re just like, ‘Well, I don’t deserve to eat a nice thing. It’s a lot of work, so why even bother?’”

“Mental illness is a spectrum, so for those who are maybe on the deeper end of that spectrum, you may be struggling not just with motivation to eat, but motivation…

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental