I was 19 when I was diagnosed with clinical depression, in 2018. Other than my lack of will to live, and last-minute appointment cancellations, my therapist worried about my awful sleep cycle and how little I ate.
My “depression meals” — or the foods I turn to when I’m not in a mental state to cook “normal,” nutritious meals — have always been chaotic mixes of carbs and processed foods. I have had a whole packet of Oreos with a side of extremely cheesy toast, ready-to-eat mac and cheese, and canned soups. My history of eating disorders and a volatile relationship with food have added to my worsening diets over the years.
During the lockdown, my depression meals have ranged from crackers and cheese to sad attempts at making burritos. Recently, I’ve been eating tofu spiced with tons of chilli flakes tossed with lettuce and homemade garlic mayonnaise. It doesn’t taste as appealing as it sounds, but it keeps me going. When a close family member was in the hospital last year, the only things I had for almost a week were endless cups of cheap hospital coffee and dry chicken sandwiches. My stomach and mind felt like shit, but I couldn’t get myself to eat anything else.
“Depression meals evolve around not finding the energy and motivation to even cook,” Lilly Sabir, a Oxford, UK-based psychotherapist, tells me. “A person who suffers from chronic depressive states goes through waves of patterns that can include eating healthy food, eating unhealthy food, eating a lot of junk, eating too little — these are inconsistent eating patterns that often mask the deeper states of depression an individual is experiencing.”
Depression meals are kind of like comfort foods, but without motivation to make them or excitement to eat them. Often they have pretty weird food combinations that can make some people gag. However, it’s also a reminder that eating something is just better than not eating at all.
The term “depression meals” became popular after online communities emerged about it over the past couple of years. On Reddit threads, and locked Facebook groups, people now gather to discuss what they eat when they feel like they can’t. From kimchi mixed with two-week old pasta, and leftover salami mixed with potato salad and cheese, depression meal threads on Reddit show people will mix just about anything when they don’t have the energy to cook and eat. There’s a depression meals bingo too, and I’ve done at least half of the things mentioned on it.
I myself found these groups on Facebook and Reddit only this year. But this has been relieving because 1) depression meals are an actual thing. I thought I was crazy for eating like this for the longest time. And 2) I realised people come up with weirder stuff than I do.
Like most online communities, being a part of these spaces has been cathartic even though after a point, I started to wonder if I knew too much about strangers’ lives. “I failed a test today, here’s a sloppy sandwich I made to feel better,” one of the posts reads. “We had to put our dog down today and I’m crying while eating cookie dough,” reads another. I also follow @depressionmealzchef on Instagram, which might have just some 150 followers but is a raw and honest account on what it’s like to live on depression meals, especially when you’re vegan.
“I would get made fun of by my roommates for being awful at cooking,” Charlotte Edgington, who runs the account with her roommate Kitty Jackson, tells me. Both are students at the University of Birmingham. “Together, we had so many awful photos of our depression-fuelled food that we decided to start a food and memes account to share it with the world.”
Such groups offer spaces to people to be vulnerable in front of thousands of strangers. However, experts warn that they could also be triggering for some. “An invisible sense of competition can prevail in these groups. A lot of meals look rather outlandish and weird, and it can make people believe that their meals have to look weird in order to qualify as depression meals,” says Sabir. “These groups are not always cathartic; they can be equally triggering for those recovering from eating disorders.”
Sometimes, as an eating disorder survivor, I too feel like I can’t handle the content of some groups. Thankfully, the mute option works wonders during these times.
Other than finding out about strangers’ depression meals, it felt more reassuring that people I know have their own versions of depression meals too. “Sometimes my depression meals are the same as my comfort food — khichdi (a one-pot Indian dish made of rice and legumes) and fried pumpkin. It’s super easy to cook and brings back warm memories,” says Ayushi Aishwarya, a 22-year-old from the city of Patna in India and a classmate from my university days. “But on the days I can’t bring myself to get out of bed, I end up ordering in whatever my budget allows me to. There was a time when I had McDonald’s nearly every day of the week. When I’m out of money, I end up making eggs and noodles, along with something cheesy.”
Endless cups of coffee seem to be another favourite. “I need something that makes me feel a little warm and comforted, so I usually make some coffee with milk and have it with chocolates,” says Aila Dutt, a 21-year-old university student from New Delhi. “I love McDonald’s chicken nuggets too but my budget doesn’t allow me to have them everyday.”
Caffeine and depression have an indirect link — too much caffeine can cause trouble falling asleep and that can worsen depression. Sugar can also lead to depression getting worse. So while it’s comforting to eat or drink these when going through a bout of depression, these very things can make the bout worse too.
“Depression meals usually consist of high sugar and caffeine levels which can cause a disruption in dopamine levels in the brain,” psychiatrist Alexander Lapa tells me. “Over the course of time, the brain becomes used to a high sugar diet. If someone in this position tries to cut sugar out of their diet, they are met with short-term but intense reactions like irritability, anxiety, and fatigue.”
While depression can lead to prolonged periods of not eating at all for some people, ready-to-eat meals can come to their rescue too. “I stock up ready meals that I can throw into a pan, or microwave with some pre-made rice and kale,” says UK-based marketing professional Jesse Jan Dreisse. “It takes about two minutes to warm up, and is fairly nutritious. I can also live on rice cakes forever.”
While not everyone would understand why people would put together such weird combos, it’s important to remember that depression can often snatch away your ability to do basic tasks like getting out of bed or taking a shower. A meal prep, then, seems unimaginably tough on some days. In that sense, eating something — even if gross as an idea for some people — is better than starving. The internet is filled with guides on how to eat healthier while on a budget or how to feed yourself depending on what level of depression you find yourself in. Ordering in could also be an option.
“Studies have found that the Mediterranean diet can reduce the chances of depressive disorders since it’s rich in Omega-3 and Vitamin B12,” says Lapa. “A diet rich in leafy greens, berries, nuts and fish is likely to help attain all of the vitamins needed to reduce the chances of depressive conditions.”
Honestly, living in a country where the pandemic rages on means that my stress levels are also unusually high, which further means that I don’t see my depression meals ceasing any time soon. However, the fact that I’m not alone in this process is oddly comforting.
Of course, these groups aren’t substitutes for mental healthcare or places where one can seek help. Nor do they mask the fact that depression meals can be an unhealthy chaotic mess of processed foods. But what helps is talking about the realities of living on depression meals and having a space to reach out to. These communities have taught me that depression meals are nothing to be ashamed of. Often, they mean that at least I managed to get through the day. And for that moment, that’s enough.