The Real ‘Happy Meal’ May Be Fruits and Vegetables12 months ago | Nutrition
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
It’s widely known that eating healthily may have a positive impact on mental health. In fact, there is a whole discipline dedicated to the treatment of mental illness through diet. It’s called nutritional psychiatry or nutritional therapy.
“Nutritional psychiatry is developing into a real opportunity for clinical intervention for patients who suffer from depression and anxiety,” according to one source.
The foods you eat affect your gut microbiome, the trillions of microbes (both good and bad) that live in your gut. There are thousands of species of gut microbes, and you want a good balance of the population of good and bad bugs.
There also appears to be a strong connection between the gut and brain (which is obviously the organ controlling our mental state). I previously discussed a study which found evidence that through signaling to the brain, gut microbes may contribute to depression and anxiety.
“Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain. Since about 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons, it makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions,” reports Harvard Health.
As you probably already know, a large part of eating healthily involves consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables. Many of these plant foods not only have a positive impact on the gut microbiome (and, in turn, possibly our mental state) by providing prebiotic fibers, but fruits and veggies are rich in antioxidants that may combat chronic systemic inflammation that can contribute to mental health issues (and other diseases).
A recent study “...discovered that eating, for example, four extra portions of fruit and vegetables a day can boost people's mental health to such an extent that it can offset half the negative psychological impact of divorce and a quarter of the psychological damage of unemployment,” according to this report discussing the study.
To be more specific, one of the lead researchers of the study said that eating seven to eight portions of fruits and veggies per day can improve mental wellbeing.
Study participants were selected first by being asked if they had been diagnosed with depression or anxiety. They were also asked many questions about their diet and lifestyle habits.
Researchers of the study ended up involving 7,108 respondents who said they had not been diagnosed with depression or anxiety in 2007. The goal of the researchers was to see if the respondents’ diet could predict their chances of having depression two years later. The results showed that eating more fruits and vegetables was associated with a decreased chance of having depression and anxiety in the future.
This is a pretty big deal. If you know you will have some challenging life events in the near future (for example, financial burden, handling a sick parent or loved one or dealing with an ongoing divorce case), you may be able to better cope with these obstacles by increasing your fruit and veggie intake.
"If people increase their daily intake of fruit and vegetables from zero to eight they are 3.2 percentage points less likely to suffer depression or anxiety in the next two years," said one of the lead researchers.
Nonetheless, people often turn to ‘comfort foods,’ such as mac and cheese, pizza, cake and potato chips, when they are feeling stressed or down. But in reality, eating these nutrient-void processed, pro-inflammatory foods may actually leave you feeling even more depressed.
Now if eating eight portions of fruits and veggies a day sounds like it would be difficult for you to accomplish, I have a few tips for you:
- Start your day with a green juice or fruit smoothie. Drinking your fruits and veggies is a lot quicker and easier than eating them. To ensure you get some fruit or vegetable in your diet first thing in the morning, go for one of these nutrient-packed beverages. You can even blend leafy greens, such as kale, spinach and dandelion, in your fruit smoothies.
- Have a salad with every meal, even breakfast. Your salads don’t always have to be super elaborate with tons of ingredients. For example, have two cups of leafy greens drizzled in olive oil, lemon and balsamic along with your morning eggs.
- Snack smartly. When it comes to snacking, a piece of fruit or veggies with hummus are great options.
- Give your junk foods a healthy makeover. We all like to indulge every now and then, but we can still use these meals as an opportunity to eat more fruits and vegetables. Sprinkle that slice of pizza with some fresh arugula (or try a cauliflower crust pizza), top that bowl of ice cream with some blueberries or strawberries and add avocado and tomato to that cheeseburger.
- Remember you can pretty much add veggies and fruits to anything. For example, spruce up your sandwich by adding sprouts, raw bell pepper and cucumber. And add greens to your pasta sauces and soups.
- If you are not a vegetarian, be one part time. If you practice going meat-free once and awhile, you will have more room on your plate for fruits and vegetables. Check out our tips for meat-free cooking here.
- Grow a garden. I’m really into gardening, and you’d be surprised how obsessed you become with eating fruits and veggies when you partake in growing them yourself. You could even start a gardening club with friends and exchange goods.
- Visit the farmers’ markets. These gems really make you appreciate fresh produce and want to eat more of it!
Finally, I highly recommend taking routine nutrient tests in order to identify any nutrient imbalances you may have. There is a lot of credible evidence which suggests that if you are not nutritionally balanced, the more likely you will be to have depression and other mental disorders. If the test shows you are not nutritionally balanced, a competent healthcare professional can work with you on making the necessary dietary changes and recommend quality supplements you can take if necessary.
Also check out these eight minerals that may help you cope with depression.
Enjoy your healthy life!
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