Eating fruits and vegetables are good for your health in so many different ways. Now in the first major scientific study of its kind, eating more of these powerhouse foods has been linked to substantial increases in people’s happiness levels.
Fruits and vegetables have an abundance of health benefits. But it’s not from lack of scientific evidence for their benefit that explains why we don’t eat enough of these foods. In Australia, just 6 percent of people eat the recommended amount of vegetables each day. For fruit, only half eat the recommended number of serves.
In the search for perhaps a different angle to promote the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, researchers are looking at their link with psychological health. Previous research has found some interesting associations with fruit and vegetable consumption and improved psychological health. But what is lacking is a large-scale study to really solidify this link.
Using a large sample of more than 12,000 randomly selected people in Australia, researchers were able to track their diet, health, happiness, life satisfactions and well-being from 2009 to 2013.
The key to happiness?
So what was the key finding? Happiness, life satisfaction and well-being all went up for each extra daily portion of fruits and vegetables eaten. And this was after making allowance for people’s changing incomes and personal circumstances. The happiness health links reached a peak at eight servings a day of fruits and vegetables. The improvements in mental health were seen within 24 months of increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables eaten.
The research team took it one step further and compared the mental health improvements to life changing situations. For someone going from eating no fruits and vegetables to eating eight portions a day, they could experience an increase in life satisfaction equivalent to moving from unemployment to employment.
Finally the researchers looked at the effect of a pro-active fruit and vegetable consumption campaign on dietary habits. Here they found a link between the intensity of the campaign, its outcomes in people eating more fruit and veg, and positive mental health benefits.
A challenge in getting a person to want to eat more healthy food is that health benefits may take decades to materialise. That green salad today may (or may not) mean a lower risk of cancer in 30 years. On that time-scale, the mental health benefits linked to eating more fruits and vegetables are closer to immediate. And improved mental health would help to reinforce the positive dietary change.
There are likely many reasons to explain a link between eating more fruits and vegetables and well-being. Higher levels of antioxidants is one possibility. Then there is the role of fibre in supporting a healthy population of gut bacteria. Gut fermentation products can act directly on the brain, potentially altering mood and behaviour.
What it all means
Diet and mental health is a rapidly growing research field. We can expect more research to come to light linking the benefits of plant-based foods with improved mental health. Rather than long-term, less immediate benefits, future health campaigns will have a new angle to focus on. Who doesn’t want to feel happier?