Is eating healthy the way to better mental health?

Nutrition and Mental Health

In recent years, the number of people interested in not just preventative health, but specifically nutrition, has increased drastically. While we know that proper nutrition is extremely important to overall health and ensuring your body functions at its best, can it also help improve mental health? Well, research says yes.

A recent study, Lettuce be happy: A longitudinal UK study on the relationship between fruit and vegetables consumption and well-being, focuses on this exact topic. Let’s dig in.

This study includes some fascinating findings indicating that fruits and vegetables not only benefit physical health in the long run, but also mental well-being in the short run.

A Few Statistics from the Study

  • Increasing the frequency of vegetable consumption from “never” to “4 to 6 days per week” generates approximately the same estimated increase in life satisfaction as being married.
  • Conversely, going from eating vegetables “4 to 5 days a week” to “never” causes approximately the same estimated loss in life satisfaction as being widowed.
  • Complex carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables may enhance mood, whereas refined sucrose, more commonly found in sweets and sugary soft drinks, may worsen mood.
  • Consuming more fruits and vegetables may result in reduced consumption of those other food groups that may be detrimental to well-being, such as refined sugars and high-fat foods.

So, is it true? Can eating more vegetables really be as life-changing as the study indicates? We spoke with Dr. Yazhini Srivathsal, psychiatrist at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital, to learn more about the possible correlation between proper nutrition and improved mental well-being.

Simple Sugars vs. Complex Carbs

It is important to understand the different impacts that simple sugars (found in foods like candy and soda) and complex carbohydrates (found in fruits and vegetables) have on your body.

Simple sugars are digested and absorbed in the blood stream very quickly and are ready to be burned almost immediately. This is great if you are about to engage in a hard workout, but if you’re not going to be doing a physically strenuous activity, then you won’t burn off these sugars. In that case, Dr. Srivathsal explains, “The unused sugars in the blood stream increase insulin secretion, clearing up this unused circulating sugar, and saving it for later, which brings down your blood sugar levels. This decrease in blood sugar levels lead to another wave of hunger.”

Foods high in sugar signal the reward pathways in the brain, which worsen sugar cravings. These highly processed, sugary foods will spike your blood sugar and leave you feeling hungry and tired. However, complex carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables are made up of sugars and soluble and insoluble fibers. These complex carbs take a while to be broken down and digested, and do not cause an immediate increase in blood sugars, which means no sugar high or crash. These complex carbs are going to leave you feeling fuller for longer. Though complex carbs taste good, they will not trick your brain in to thinking that it’s a reward like processed sugar does, and instead will provide satiety rather than more cravings. These fibrous foods add bulk to your meals, which leaves less room for the consumption of other foods such as not-so-healthy options like processed foods.

How Your Diet is Linked to Mental Health

So, does this mean that there is solid evidence that eating fruits and vegetables leads to improved mental well-being? Unfortunately, not exactly. “While we know it is imperative to eat fruits and vegetables for overall health, more research needs to be done on the correlations between fruits and vegetables and mental health. Larger and longer trials need to take place before we can say this is factual evidence,” stated Dr. Srivathsal.

In the meantime, try incorporating a few extra servings of fruits and vegetables into your daily diet and pay attention to how you feel. While the evidence may not be all there yet, few will argue that eating more fruits and vegetables will affect your mental health negatively. Therefore, because of the obvious physical health benefits of adjusting your diet, it may not hurt to try incorporating some more fruits and veggies into your meals. Plus, when you stick to your goal of eating more fruits and vegetables, you feel a sense of accomplishment. This adds to the joy of making a dietary change and provides a healthier “instant gratification” than the reward provided by sugary foods.

Changing Your Habits

If you are not someone who is used to consuming much fruits and vegetables, feel free to start slow.

Dr. Srivathsal has a few suggestions on how to begin:

  • Try local, seasonal produce.
  • Keep rotating your produce and try new items.
  • Involve the whole family in picking the fresh produce and cooking it.
  • Make it a habit by making simple changes as often as you desire.

“Sticking to new habits requires a lot of conscious effort, which can be exhausting. It is much easier to fall into old habits, and that might happen. This is totally normal,” Dr. Srivathsal explained. “Please don’t beat yourself up over this. Feeling guilty might not be as helpful as asking yourself what you learned from the experience, and how you’re going to prevent it from happening in the future.”

To help you begin your journey to healthier eating, check out our Decoding the Diet blog series to help answer all your questions about popular diets, along with their advantages and disadvantages.

Eating fruits and vegetables is also not a substitute for proper medical treatment. If you feel signs of depression or other inhibiting symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor.

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