The benefits of fruits and vegetables seem boundless. These nutritional foods are low in fat and salt, but full of plant fiber, which prevents constipation and helps you absorb water and nutrients from your food. Soluble fiber, which is found in plenty of produce, including peas, beans, apples, citrus, and more, may also help reduce cholesterol and regulate blood sugar levels. In addition, the vitamins and minerals in fruits and veggies play many important roles in the immune system and the prevention of certain diseases. The regular consumption of phytochemicals, or plant chemicals, has been linked to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and even some forms of cancer.
Many of us don’t pay attention to the benefits that fruits and vegetables can have on our mental health as well. According to a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, fruit and vegetable intake are associated with lower risks of depression and anxiety. To come to these conclusions, researchers analyzed data from over 65,000 people and measured self-reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. They then measured fruit intake and vegetable intake in the participants. After a close analysis, scientists learned that the consumption of colorful fruit was linked to significantly lower risks of depressive and anxiety symptoms. Colorful vegetables were linked to a lower risk of depressive symptoms.
Why might this be? Previous research has illuminated a connection between altered gut microbial composition and major depressive disorder, according to Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine and author of The Mind-Gut Connection. One working theory, published in the journal Cureus in 2020, is that inflammation in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract can cause neuroinflammation, which can induce depression. Another paper published in Clinics and Practice confirms that an imbalance in gut bacteria and inflammation of the gut are both linked to anxiety and depression.
Colorful fruits and vegetables might reduce symptoms of depression because they contain carotenoids. Carotenoids are plant pigments that give fruits and veggies their bright red, orange, and yellow colors. They are also a form of phytonutrients, which work as antioxidants in the body to deactivate free radicals and reduce inflammation. In addition to reducing body inflammation in general, carotenoids inhibit the production of inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are molecules that help cells in the body communicate and form an immune response to certain foreign triggers. Too many cytokines can cause what is called a “cytokine storm,” or an overreaction of the immune system. In effect, the carotenoids in fruits and vegetables can help reduce inflammation not only in the gut, but in the brain as well.
The link between fresh, colorful produce and improved mental health is backed up by multiple other studies. One study from Frontiers in Psychology found that the consumption of raw fruits and vegetables is linked to better mental health when compared to the consumption of processed fruits and veggies. Another study published in The British Psychological Society journal found that eating colorful fruits and vegetables went beyond improving feelings of happiness and life satisfaction. In fact, consuming fruits and veggies was linked to a greater flourishing in daily life. The researchers categorized the state of “flourishing” as feelings of engagement, meaning, and purpose in life.
So, if you’re looking to improve your mental well-being with your diet, where do you begin? Researchers suggest consuming about 2 cups of colorful fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. While diet changes are not a substitute for professional counseling and therapy, they may help improve your quality of life in more ways than you may have realized.