What to eat for better mental health

Feeling the winter blues? It might be time to eat yourself happy! Five reasons why fruits and veggies are good mood foods.

What to eat for better mental health

Ever notice how a low mood gets you reaching for the comfort food? A cup of hot, spicy soup on a cold day. A slice of apple pie that tastes just like Grandma’s. That first spritz of citrusy goodness as you peel an orange. Everybody knows that food has the power to lift your mood instantly. That's because there are strong scientific ties between diet and mental health.

People who eat more fruits and vegetables report higher levels of mental wellbeing, experience lower incidence of anxiety and depression, and may even have bigger brains!

How can food affect our mood and wellbeing?

While there are countless nutritional schools of thought out there, something essentially all doctors, nutritionists, and scientists agree on is that in addition to diet impacting physical health, there's also a strong food and mood connection. But in what ways does food affect your mood?

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables has been shown to:

  • improve your mood, as we've established!

  • give you more energy

  • help you think more clearly

Meanwhile, diets lacking in produce can lead to inflammation throughout the body and brain, which may contribute to mood disorders, including anxiety and depression. This can result in a negative feedback loop. When you feel stressed, according to the American Dietetic Association, the more challenging it can be to eat well, which in turn can compound feelings of stress.

But this cycle isn't insurmountable! Every little bit of produce consumed can help.

Here’s the evidence

The link between food and mental health isn't merely anecdotal. It's backed by science. And studies have even identified some of the best food for mental health.

  •  AN APPLE A DAY KEEPS THE BLUES AT BAY: A 2019 study of more than 40,000 people in the UK showed that eating even one extra serving of fruits or vegetables a day had a positive effect on mental wellbeing. The authors found the extra dose of produce had a similar mood-lifting benefit to taking a twice-weekly walk. 

  •  HEALTHY HABITS = HAPPY AGING: Women in their 50s who eat more than 2 daily servings of fruits have a lower risk of depression, according to a study of almost 7000 women. The fruit effect was clear even after adjustment for other health factors including smoking, alcohol, body mass index, physical activity, marital status, education, and existing health conditions.

  •  EAT 5-A-DAY TO GET HAPPY, RIGHT AWAY: A study followed 12,000 Australians over 6 years, tracking their food choices and reported levels of happiness. The authors found that while the physical benefits of a plant-rich diet are often only observable over the course of decades, people experience a happiness uptick almost immediately.

  • THE TASTY WAY TO BOOST YOUR MOOD: Professor Felice Jacka (author of author of Brain Changer: The Good Mental Health Diet) has found that simply eating better – no complicated fads or exclusions, just following standard advice for a healthy balanced diet with plenty of fruits and veggies – results in a 30% lower risk of depression.

  •  BIGGER FRUIT BOWL, BIGGER BRAIN: Researchers in the Netherlands found that people who eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts and fish have bigger brains. A study of more than 4000 people revealed that eating well boosts the volume of your grey matter and hippocampus (memory center) by an average of 2mm – equivalent to staying 6 months younger than your friends who don’t eat their greens.

So, what are you waiting for?

Studies like these don’t prove that fruits and veggies cause specific mental health outcomes; people, and nutrition, are far too complex for that. But they show a significant link between what we eat and how we feel. In other words, choosing food for mental health is relatively simple: a diet rich in plant foods is a safe bet for anyone interested in their mental wellbeing.

The best news is that getting more fruits and veggies is one of the simplest changes you can make to your daily routine. Five a day is a great goal, but you can start small - as the research shows, even one piece of fruit a day makes a difference. It’s easier than exercise, cheaper than therapy, and kinder than restricting calories – and you can start today! So why not make it step one on your happiness plan? 

Getting your 5-a-day

You've probably heard us beating the 5-a-day drum before — we love to talk about it! And for good reason. 5-a-day is the minimum daily servings of produce recommended by... well, just about all experts, in order to enjoy tangible health benefits. While the studies cited above observed improvements in mental health at lower thresholds, if you're looking for more motivation to add even more plants to your routine, here you go:

  • It's best to mix things up! Eating a variety of different colored fruits and vegetables every day means you'll get a good range of nutrients.

  • You don't have to constantly hit the fruit stand. Fresh, frozen, tinned, dried and juiced (fruits and vegetables all count towards your 5-a-day.

  • A serving might not be as daunting as you think. As a general rule, one portion is about a handful, a small bowl, or a small glass.

  • Did we mention we can help? Say hello to smoothies! They’re versatile, packed full of blended fruit and vegetable goodness, and easy to have on the go!

Extra tips to improve your wellbeing with food

But it's not exclusively fruits and veggies that make a difference on mood. There's plenty more to consider about food for mental health-related goals.

  • Snacking between smaller meals and not skipping meals can help you keep your blood sugar more steady.

  • Drinking between 6–8 glasses of fluid a day can help with mental clarity and focus — brain fog can be a symptom of dehydration.

  • If you're stressed or anxious, this can make your gut slow down or speed up. Make sure to eat plenty of fiber. And regular exercise — even modest amounts — can help keep digestion on track, too.

  • Get enough protein! Protein contains amino acids, which your brain needs to regulate your thoughts and feelings. It also helps keep you feeling fuller for longer.

  • This one's tough! But manage your caffeine intake. It's a stimulant, which means it will give you a quick burst of energy, but then may make you feel anxious or disturb your sleep.

  • Keep an eye on omega-3 and -6 fats and be sure to get enough — they help keep your brain healthy.

If you know you need some support to set up or stick to your new healthier eating habits, kencko can help. Along with a daily instant smoothie that supplies at least 2 servings of fruits and vegetables (no prep, no blend, no waste ;-), every kencko subscriber gets free advice from a registered dietitian, including a one-to-one phone consult. Visit our shop to start your plan today.


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