Eating Your Emotions: It’s Not What You Think

Depression and anxiety disorders are prevalent worldwide. Globally, approximately 121 million people are affected by depression (Sanchez-Villegas, Toledo, de Irala, Ruiz-Canela, Pla-Vidal et al., 2012). According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), more than 1 out of 20 Americans over the age of 12 report symptoms of depression.

In recent years I have seen a growing interest in the connection between nutrition and depression. There is a growing body of scientific research that shows eating a healthy diet of fresh fruits and vegetables may reduce symptoms of mental illnesses.  Previous research discovered that those with mental illness eat diets that are high in saturated fat (Mahony, Haracz, and Williams, 2012). A study conducted in Norway found that women who consume a healthy diet high is salmon have lower levels of depression (Jacka et al, 2011). Additionally, researcher Walsh (2011) conducted a study and found that changing one’s diet directly impact one’s rate of depression.

This is not new news. In 1977, J. P. Crawford, a British doctor, discovered a relationship between gluten sensitivity and mood disorders during a blind study (Abdullah, 1977). Crawford not only discovered the link, he felt the link was significant enough to pay close attention to, yet forty years later celiac, an autoimmune disorder caused by gluten intolerance, continues to be underdiagnosed and undertreated in both the medical and mental health care professions (Jackson et al., 2012). Studies indicated that nearly 22% of those suffering from celiac disease develop neurologic or psychiatric problems (Jackson et al., 2012).

As someone who has been living with celiac for many years, this caught my attention. So much so that I decided to focus my own scientific study, which was required for me to graduate with my Master in Social Work. I studied the impact one’s diet has on one’s mental health, specifically, mood disorders. I analyzed data from 2011-2012 Adult California Health Interview Survey (CHIS); A statewide, cross–sectional collaboration survey between UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, the California Department of Public Health, and the Department of Health Care Services. Among the largest of state health surveys, CHIS gathers a wide range of health and health-related information from adults 18 and older. This population-based, telephone survey continuously collected data for over two years.

In analyzing the CHIS data, I was not surprised to discovered a significant scientific correlation between a one’s dietary intake and depression. Regardless of age, ethnicity, marital status, or socioeconomic status, those between the ages of 35 and 55 who reported consuming fried potatoes, fast food, and sodas had a significant increase in depression. Equally, those who reported high consumptions of fruits and vegetables showed a significant lower rate of depression. This study found that the more unhealthy food the subject consumed the higher rate of depression the subject suffered. Equally, the more healthy food the subject ate, the lower the depression level of the subject.

So, it could be that you are eating your emotions.

As a professional therapist, I would never recommend one simply change their diet in leu of professional help for depression or any other mental health issue. However, I do respect the science that supports a positive change of healthy eating, and therefore I integrate a holistic approach to treatment with those I work with, especially with those who suffer from a gastric disorder such as celiac, including medical check ups and possible treatment from a registered dietician. The good news is, eating a healthy diet has no known negative side effects.


Abdullah, F. (1977). Celiac disease and mental illness. The British Medical Journal, 1(6067), 1034.

California Health Interview Survey (CHIS). 2011-2012. Adult survey. UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. Los Angeles, CA: June 2014.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2012, April 20). An estimated 1 in 10 u.s. adults report depression. Atlanta. GA: Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs. 

Jacka, F.N., Mykletun, A., Berk, M., Bjelland, I., & Tell, G. (2011). The association between habitual diet quality and the common mental disorders in community- dwelling adults: The hordal and health study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 73(6), 483-490.

Jacka, F. N., Maes, M., Pasco, J. A., Williams, L. J., Berk, M. (2012). Nutrient intakes and the common mental disorders in women. Journal of Affective Disorders, 141, 79-85.

Jackson, J., Eaton, W., Cascella, N., Fasano, A., & Kelly, D. (2012). Neurologic and psychiatric manifestations of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Psychiatric Quarterly, 83(1), 91-102.

Mahony, G., Haracz, K., & Williams, L. (2012). How mental health occupational therapists address issues of diet with their clients: A qualitative study. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 59(4), 294-301.

Mental Health Foundation (n.d.). Diet and mental health. Scotland, SC. Retrieved on October 11, 2014 

Sanchez-Villegas, A., Toledo, E., de Irala, J., Ruiz-Canela, M., Pla-Vidal, J., et al. (2012). Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression. Public Health Nutrition, 15(3), 424-432.

Smith, B.L. (2012). Inappropriate prescribing: Research shows that all too often Americans are taking medication that may not work for may be inappropriate for their mental health problems.

Smith, D., & Gerdes, L. (2012). Meta-analysis on anxiety and depression in adult celiac disease. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 125(3), 189-193.

Stokes, N., Gordon, C., & DiVasta, A. (2011). Vegetarian diets and mental health in adolescents with anorexia nervosa. Journal of Adolescent Health, 48(2), S50.

Walsh, R (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. The American Psychologist, 66(7), 579- 592.

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