That salad could *actually* be making you happier. Here's why.

Lauren Wicks
January 16, 2020
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We all know that fruits and vegetables are good for our health, but you're not alone if you feel like you don't get enough. A 2017 CDC report found only 10% of Americans regularly meet the daily recommendation of five servings of fruits and vegetables. Skipping out on these foods not only means missing out on some vital nutrients, but could also hinder your mental health.

New research published in Nature found some pretty close ties between how much produce one consumes and their mental health status. Researchers from Warsaw University analyzed more than 60 studies related to fruit and vegetable consumption and mental health. They discovered that eating more produce each day led to improved mental wellbeing and happiness and decreased depressive symptoms, on average.

While simply increasing one's intake of fruits and/or vegetables by one serving a day had a major impact on one's mental health, the analysis found consuming six or more packed a big punch. Those who consumed eight or more servings of produce each day experienced greater life satisfaction—an equivalent mental health boost from going from unemployed to fully employed. Consuming more produce was also associated with greater self-efficacy (think: one's belief in themselves) and even protection from cancer-related death.

While increasing daily produce consumption led to improved mental health, there were certain foods that stood out among the crowd throughout the analysis. Citrus, berries, leafy greens (particularly spinach), cucumbers, bananas, apples, kiwifruit, carrots and tomatoes all showed to have a significant impact on mental health. Berries in particular were associated with greater optimism.

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The authors note that eating a single orange won't necessarily make you happier, but following a healthy, produce-rich diet could boost your mental health and wellbeing over time. The researchers also mention that increasing your physical activity may be necessary to reap the full mental-health benefits fruits and veggies have to offer us.

The Bottom Line

While improved mental wellbeing sounds incredible in our stressed-out world, you might be seeing dollar signs after thinking about eating more servings of fruits and vegetables every day. The good news is that it wasn't just fresh produce that led to the increase in mental health. Frozen, canned and even processed fruit products (think 100% juice, not fruit snacks) were all included as part of achieving the daily recommendation.

Boosting your intake of fruits and vegetables can be as simple as snacking on an apple instead of chips during that 2 p.m. slump or blending up a smoothie with all the mood-boosting foods. Serving a simple salad with dinner is another easy way to ramp up your intake without extra time and money spent during the week.

"What this study in particular shows is that something as simple as eating more fruits and vegetables benefits mental health in men and women," said Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., C.N.S., a Michigan-based psychologist and board certified nutrition specialist. "For too long nutrition has been ignored in the fields of medicine and mental health. We clearly are not hitting the mark with the commonly accepted and utilized strategies, like prescription drugs and traditional counseling methods, as more people are diagnosed with mental health disorders each year. Nutrition-focused interventions provide an additional much-needed piece to the treatment picture for people struggling with these disorders."

Beurkens says this study, along with previous research, shows us that we actually have more power than we think to impact our mental health—plus, there are virtually no negative side effects to increasing our intake of produce.

"How fabulous is it that by eating more apples, carrots, peppers and berries, we are able to shift our mental health in a more positive direction," Beurken says. "By being more thoughtful about what's on the end of our fork, we have the power to improve our mood, anxiety and behavior for the better. That's a profoundly important concept for people to understand, and studies like this confirm that it's not just a nice idea—it's a fact."