We’ve long been told “we are what we eat” and we need to “eat well to be well” in our physical health. Fruits and vegetables have long been known to promote longevity and decrease risks of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke. As it turns out, that “eat well to be well” applies to our mental health too and fruits and veggies may be a key to lower rates of depression, greater happiness, and higher life satisfaction.
Greater Happiness From Fresh Produce
A University of Queensland study looked at the mental health benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption for 12,000 Australian households. They found that in measuring levels of satisfaction, stress and vitality, and other mental well being markers and levels of fruit and vegetable consumption:
“It comes up the more you eat [fruits and vegetables] the better, but there’s also some optimal points.
“Eating about five fruits and five vegetables [per day] makes us the happiest we can be in that case.
Greater Wellbeing From Fresh Produce
Least you think this is a rogue study, similar results were found in a University of Warwick’s Medical School study in the United Kingdom involving 14,000 participants:
33.5% of respondents with high mental wellbeing ate five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day, compared with only 6.8% who ate less than one portion. Commenting on the findings Dr Saverio Stranges, the research paper’s lead author, said: “The data suggest that higher an individual’s fruit and vegetable intake the lower the chance of their having low mental wellbeing”.
“Along with smoking, fruit and vegetable consumption was the health-related behaviour most consistently associated with both low and high mental wellbeing. These novel findings suggest that fruit and vegetable intake may play a potential role as a driver, not just of physical, but also of mental wellbeing in the general population”.
Low mental wellbeing is strongly linked to mental illness and mental health problems, but high mental wellbeing is more than the absence of symptoms or illness; it is a state in which people feel good and function well. Optimism, happiness, self-esteem, resilience and good relationships with others are all part of this state. Mental wellbeing is important not just to protect people from mental illness but because it protects people against common and serious physical diseases.
And the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables doesn’t end there.
Greater Creativity From Fresh Produce
Research at the University of Otago on in 405 young adults found that fruit and vegetable consumption was related to greater eudaemonic well-being (engagement, meaning, and purpose in their daily lives) and eudaemonic behaviours of curiosity and creativity.
The micronutrient content of food could provide an explanation for the current findings. Consumption of vitamin C, antioxidants, and B vitamins in FV may improve well-being by increasing the synthesis of neurotransmitters implicated in the neurochemistry of eudaemonia, such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin (Rao et al., 2008). The carbohydrate content of FV could also play a role. The consumption of carbohydrates increases brain levels of tryptophan and tyrosine, which are key precursors to the synthesis of serotonin and dopamine (Rooney et al., 2013; Wurtman et al., 2003). Refined sugars characterised by simple carbohydrate content have been shown to promote temporary improvements in mood, whereas the complex nature of carbohydrates found in FV provides a moderate but significantly longer effect on brain chemistry (Rao et al., 2008).
They also point out
Experimental evidence shows that inducing positive moods can shift people towards healthier food options (Gardner, Wansink, Kim, & Park, 2014). This interpretation would also be consistent with the Broaden and Build Theory of positive emotions in which positive emotions can foster improvements in other positive states leading to an “upward spiral” of well-being (Fredrickson, 2001).
So start now. Make eating 5 fruits and 5 vegetables a daily priority. Not just to increase your longevity and prevent diseases like cancer, stroke and heart disease, do it to increase your mental wellbeing, curiosity and creativity and to set yourself on an upward spiral of happiness.