The Plant Prescription For A Better Mood

Food and mood. We intuitively know they’re connected. That’s why we reach for something sweet when we’ve had a bad morning or order coffee for the will power to finish a long workday.

We’re a little duped by our instincts, though. The most important dietary drivers of our mood and cognitive abilities aren’t these little pick-me-ups (tasty as they are). They’re the choices we make, day in and day out, about how we fill our shopping carts, cupboards and plates.

It turns out that your love of roasted asparagus, your weekly veggie chili night, or your habit of eating sliced mango for breakfast is doing more than filling your belly, or even warding off cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Those fruits and vegetables may also be keeping you happy, chill, and able to think and remember clearly.

For example, research into the role of our dietary habits in the development of depression has taken off in recent years. Large studies that observe people and their diets show that a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of depression.[1],[2],[3],[4] Another research group found that low fruit and vegetable intake was linked with poor mental health status and having been diagnosed with a mood or anxiety disorder.[5] A cross-sectional European study found that the participants who reported eating more fruits and vegetables also were more likely to exhibit better mental health.[6]

The takeaway here? Depression and anxiety are serious disorders that can require help from doctors and therapists. But whether you have a diagnosed mood disorder or just a case of the blah’s, consistently meeting your five servings of fruits and vegetables a day may help. Aim to fill one-half of your plate — or more! When you’re planning your meals, consider eating some of your fruits and veggies uncooked: one recent study found higher mental health outcomes for those eating more raw fruits and vegetables.[7]

Of course, the brain thinks as much as it feels, and, here, too, fruits and vegetables can play a role. Ongoing research in this area is increasingly valuable; cognitive impairment tends to affect the elderly and, by 2030, one in five Americans will be over the age of 65. Although findings on diet and cognition have been mixed, there is evidence that high vs. low intake of fruits and vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment.[8] In this case, more may be better, so bring on the berries! One meta-analysis of multiple studies found a dose-dependent response, finding that every 100g per day increase in fruits and vegetables was related to a 13% decrease in cognitive impairment and dementia risk.[9] 100g is just two medium carrots, ½ an apple or 6 tangerine wedges, so why not aim for more?

Does it surprise you that you may be able to prevent depression and anxiety, improve your cognitive abilities, and perhaps lower your risk of dementia by eating a high-quality diet full of fruits and vegetables?

I see that often. In our culture, we are sometimes taught to think of our minds as separate from our bodies, like we’re carting our brains around in rolling suitcases. But nutrition isn’t just from the neck down. Every plump berry, tender broccoli spear or juicy peach that helps your heart or reduces your diabetes risk is also a bite that feeds your brain — a delicious dietary difference you can feel in your mood and thinking, too. So, if you’re reading this in line at the coffee bar, grab an apple or veggie pack to go with that drip. Your brain will thank you.

[1] Wallace, T.C., R.L. Bailey, J.B. Blumberg, B. Burton-Freeman, C-Y.O. Chen, K.M. Crowe-White, A. Drewnowski, S. Hooshmand, E. Johnson, R. Lewis, R. Murray, S.A. Shapses, and D.D. Wang. 2020. Fruits, vegetables, and health: a comprehensive narrative, umbrella review of the science and recommendations for enhanced public policy to improve intake. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 60(13):2174-2211. Doi: 10.1080/10408398.2019.1632258.
[2] Liu, X., Y. Yan, F. Li, and D. Zhang. 2016. Fruit and vegetable consumption and the risk of depression: A meta-analysis. Nutrition 32 (3):296–302. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2015.09.009.
[3] Wu, L., D. Sun, and Y. Tan. 2017. Intake of fruit and vegetables and the incident risk of cognitive disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging 21 (10):1284–90. doi: 10.1007/s12603-017-0875-6.
[4] Saghafian, F., H. Malmir, P. Saneei, A. Milajerdi, B. Larijani, and A. Esmaillzadeh. 2018. Fruit and vegetable consumption and risk of depression: Accumulative evidence from an updated systematic review and meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. British Journal of Nutrition 119 (10):1087–101. doi: 10.1017/S0007114518000697.
[5]McMartin, S. E., F. N. Jacka, and I. Colman. 2013. The association between fruit and vegetable consumption and mental health disorders: Evidence from five waves of a national survey of Canadians. Preventive Medicine 56 (3–4):225–30. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2012. 12.016.
[6]Myint, P. K., A. A. Welch, S. A. Bingham, P. G. Surtees, N. W. J. Wainwright, R. N. Luben, N. J. Wareham, R. D. Smith, I. M. Harvey, N. E. Day, et al. 2007. Fruit and vegetable consumption and self-reported functional health in men and women in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer-Norfolk (EPIC–Norfolk): A population-based cross-sectional study. Public Health Nutrition 10 (1):34–41. doi: 10.1017/S1368980007222608.
[7]Brookie, K. L., G. I. Best, and T. S. Conner. 2018. Intake of raw fruits and vegetables is associated with better mental health than intake of processed fruits and vegetables. Frontiers in Psychology 9:487 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00487.
[8]Mottaghi, T., F. Amirabdollahian, and F. Haghighatdoost. 2018. Fruit and vegetable intake and cognitive impairment: A systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 72 (10):1336–44. doi: 10.1038/s41430-017-0005-x.
[9] Jiang, X., J. Huang, D. Song, R. Deng, J. Wei, and Z. Zhang. 2017. Increased consumption of fruit and vegetables is related to a reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia: Meta-analysis. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 9:18. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2017.00018.

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