What can I eat to help with postpartum depression?  

Rebecca McPhee
Dietitian Member of the DAA

3 Minutes

The only way I can really describe the whole pregnancy journey is like going on the world's largest rollercoaster ride! There are so many ups and downs and unexpected turns. With this comes emotions from excitement and anticipation, to fear, anxiety, low mood and even depression. Once you have had your baby, it is normal to continue experiencing these mixed emotions especially tearfulness, anxiety and mood swings. These feelings are often referred to as the ‘baby blues’ and are very common in the first week after the birth of your baby. It requires no special treatment unless symptoms are severe. 


What is postpartum depression?  

Postpartum depression otherwise known as postnatal depression describes the more severe symptoms of depression that go on for more than two weeks and get in the way of being able to manage with daily routine including looking after your baby. It is more common than what you may think with around one in seven experiencing postpartum depression. We also know that around 40% of these women experience these symptoms in pregnancy.  

If you feel that your low mood is getting in the way of your daily life, it is important to speak with your Doctor. Your Doctor will be able to advise the right treatment plan for you, which may include referral to a Psychologist and/or medication.  


The following websites are also useful resources to find out more about depression and management strategies:  


Whilst there are no superfoods that magically cure the 'baby blues' or postpartum depression, there is enough evidence to suggest that what you eat can affect your mood. As the saying goes, 'you are what you eat.' The type of lifestyle you lead will also influence your mood including getting enough sleep and regular relaxation. Here are diet and lifestyle tips to help improve your mood, give you more energy and allow you to think more clearly.  


1. Stick to a Healthy Balanced Diet 

Studies have shown that following a healthy, balanced, Mediterranean style diet promotes brain and mental health. This type of diet is based on the five food groups including a good amount of vegetables, fresh fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, extra virgin olive oil, fish, and small portions of meat. 


2. Limit the junk  

How easy is it to reach for something sweet or fatty and salty when we are feeling down? Whilst we get an immediate 'high' from these foods, it often follows with a 'low' feeling and our energy levels are depleted. We often feel guilty too, thinking 'I shouldn't have eaten that".  

We know from research that people who eat foods containing a lot of fat and sugar are more likely to suffer from depression. This does not mean we need to cut out these foods completely. Use the 80/20 rule - include healthy food choices 80% of the time and 'treat's 20% of the time. Treat foods include chocolate, cake, biscuits, chips and takeaway food. You may find it easier to save treats for a special occasion, when you are feeling positive and in the company of loved ones.  


3. Include healthy fats 

Did you know that about 60 percent of your brain matter consists of fats and all the cell membranes in your body?i The brain therefore needs fatty acids to keep it working well including thinking clearly and improving mood. You also need fat for absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. 'Good fats' include oily fish, olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocado. Use avocado as a spread on your wholegrain bread or crackers, include a handful of nuts as a grab and go snack, use olive oil in your cooking and add a can of tuna or salmon to your lunchtime salad. There are so many easy ways to add good fats to your diet! 


4. Pack a punch with protein  

Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are chemicals our brain needs to control how we think and feel. Protein is also important for cell growth and repair as well as helping us to feel full. You can get protein from a variety of animal and plant sources including red meat, chicken, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt, legumes, beans, pulses and soy foods including tofu, tempeh, soymilk and soy yoghurt. 


5. Go the low GI grains 

Choose low GI wholegrains rather than white refined, high GI grains. Low GI grains provide slow release energy and are higher in dietary fibre helping you to feel fuller for longer. Wholegrains are also rich in B group vitamins, which are involved in producing brain chemicals that affect mood and other brain functions. Good low GI choices include wholegrain bread and crackers, oats, natural muesli, long grain brown rice, barley, buckwheat, quinoa (technically a seed but we cook and eat it like a grain alternative).   


6. Stay hydrated 

Part of a healthy diet includes keeping up your water intake. One study found that even mild levels of dehydration in healthy young women resulted in changes in energy and fatigue as well as increased headaches and difficulty concentrating. If you are still breastfeeding, you will need more fluid as making breastmilk requires fluid. Keep a bottle handy when you are at home and travelling out and about to remind yourself to drink.  


7. Watch the caffeine 

Many of us love the buzz that a morning cuppa gives us. Including caffeine in moderation is absolutely fine however we can have too much of a good thing! For some people, too much caffeine can cause you to feel jittery and more anxious. If you are breastfeeding, limit your consumption to 200mg caffeine a day. To put this into perspective, one shot of coffee is 145mg and one cup of tea is 10-50mg. 


8. Get moving  

We all know that getting some regular physical keeps us fit but it is also good for our mental health. In fact, physical activity has been shown to alleviate depression. Aim for 30 minutes a day but if you find this too much, break it up to 2 x 15 minute blocks. Going for a walk with bub in the pram or baby carrier is a great way to get exercise while enjoying quality time together. Or search for classes in your local area, like mum and bub fitness classes. 


9. Get enough shut-eye 

I remember when my sister had her first baby and when I asked what she wanted as a gift, she replied 'sleep'! No doubt, the amount of sleep you get has changed since having baby and it may seem impossible to find time to get some more shuteye. One study found that new mothers who slept less than 4 hours between midnight and 6am, or new mothers who napped less than 60 minutes during the day, were at an increased risk for postpartum depression. If you are finding it hard to get enough hours of sleep during the night, try having a nap during the day. If you're struggling to find time for a nap, ask a friend or family member for help to give you a much needed break.  


10. Include regular R & R   

Including some rest and recovery might seem like achieving the impossible but taking time out for yourself is an important part of feeling good about yourself. If taking time out seems impossible when you're tied up breastfeeding, tending to other children or working, start with 30 minutes and build up over time. Asking your partner, family member of friend to watch your baby might also help you to focus on some good quality 'me time'.  


In summary 

  • It is normal to experience mixed emotions after you have just had a baby. The 'baby blues' usually lasts 1-2 weeks after giving birth 

  • If you feel that feelings of low mood and anxiety continue for longer than 2 weeks and is getting in the way of functioning daily including looking after your baby, then it is important that you speak to your Doctor as you may be experiencing postpartum depression. 

  • What we eat also affects mood. Focusing on including wholefoods 80% of the time and 'treats' 20% of the time.  

  • Keep hydrated with water every day and limit caffeine intake 

  • Getting enough exercise, sleep and relaxation time are also important health behaviours to enhance our mood, energy and thinking.  

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