Can Cooking a Meal a Day Keep Depression Away?


Wanna be happy and kick Prozac to the curb? Start eating your fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, beans, fish and olive oil. We’ve long known that a Mediterranean diet is good for the heart, but it turns out it’s also good for the mood.

In a study published earlier this month, Spanish researchers looked at the diets of 10,000 people and found those who mainly ate a Mediterranean diet had lower depression rates than those who did not. The study compiled data from Spanish people who reported their dietary intake on a questionnaire between 1999 and 2005.

After an average follow-up of 4.4 years, the overall incidence of depression for those who followed the diet was 30 percent lower than for those who mostly did not follow the diet. Even lower rates of depression were associated with intake of specific elements of the Mediterranean diet, such as fruits, vegetables and olive oil.

To be sure, specific foods contain components that make your body, nervous system and brain work better. From the dopamine in chocolate to the serotonin producing carbohydrates, to the healthy fats and antioxidants that can boost brainpower, there’s definitely something physiological going on here.

I’d like to see a study that includes sociological-cultural controls because I think there’s something else going on here as well.

Notice that all the foods listed are whole foods, meaning they require cooking and preparation. So the people in the study who followed the Mediterranean diet and experienced less depression were probably cooking.

If people take the time and energy to cook, it usually means they place some importance on cooking for others, sitting down in groups to eat and generally having unhurried, quality contact with friends and loved ones.

Of course, you can eat a Mediterranean meal in a restaurant, but you’d have to be frequenting restaurants that actually cook real food. These are the types of restaurants people go to with others to enjoy life and socialize. There it is again – human interaction over a meal.

What you cannot do is follow a Mediterranean diet eating fast food, eating in your car or heating up processed food in the microwave and scarfing it down in front of the television or computer. These eating behaviors are often engaged in while alone, when rushed or when stressed.

What I’m getting at is this:

The way you eat and how much you enjoy mealtimes might have just as much to do with mood as what you eat.

Whether or not depression causes social isolation, or vice versa, there is a strong correlation between the two.

One study showed that children who have regular family mealtimes are less likely to get in trouble as teens. Troubled teens are often depressed. Another researcher found that family mealtimes strengthen relationships. People with strong relationships are less likely to be depressed.

So here’s my Rx for depression prevention:

Invite some good friends or family members into the kitchen and prepare a meal of healthy, whole foods from scratch and then sit down and eat it together. Enjoy the following recipe with a moderate glass of red wine and some fresh, seasonal fruit for dessert and you should feel better by morning.

Depression Busting Mediterranean Grain Bowl

Serves 6

4 small to medium beets
1/2 cup (about 2 ounces) walnut halves, coarsely chopped
1 cup brown rice
1 bunch Lacinato or green or red kale
1 can sardines, drained, skin and bones removed and separated into filets
2/3 cup cooked and drained (or canned) chickpeas
2/3 cup homemade vinaigrette made with olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Trim the beets and wrap them in 1 or 2 foil packets, depending on their size, keeping like-sized beets with like-sized beets. Roast until tender and fragrant, 35 to 40 minutes. Use a small paring knife or skewer to check for doneness. Set the beets aside to steam in their foil packets. When they are cool enough to handle, peel them by rubbing the skins off with your fingertips, and cut the beets into bite-sized wedges.

Lower the oven to 300 degrees F.

Arrange the walnuts in a single layer in a small baking dish. Toast until brown and fragrant, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.

While the beets are roasting and the walnuts are toasting, cook the rice according to package instructions. Set aside until you are ready to mix the salad.

Meanwhile, trim, stem, and wash the kale and put it in a vegetable steamer set over boiling water. Steam until tender, wilted, but still bright green, about 5 minutes. Remove immediately to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain and squeeze out excess moisture. Chop coarsely and set aside.

When all the rice, beets, walnuts and greens are ready, transfer them to a large bowl. Add the chickpeas and dressing and toss thoroughly. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Present each serving with a filet or two of sardines on top.

Image: ToastyKen

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.