Learn about the surprising link between fresh air and fresh fare.
A woman walking in the woods
Credit: Getty Images / SeventyFour

You may have heard that spending time outside is one of the best $0 ways to combat stress, boost happiness and score more quality sleep. No wonder Canadian doctors began "prescribing nature" to the tune of two hours per week to improve patients' overall wellness! (There are now even entire meta-analyses all about the positive impacts of these unique Rx programs.)

But new research published April 5 in the American Journal of Health Promotion proves that your brain isn't the only thing that benefits from being al fresco: spending time outside and feeling connected to the natural world is correlated with eating a more diverse array of fruits and vegetables.

What This Nature Study Found

Researchers from Drexel University surveyed a representative sample of more than 300 Philadelphia-based adults to determine:

  • How connected they felt to nature
  • Their experience with and view of nature
  • What and how much they ate and drank the day before

They combined these factors to develop a nature relatedness (NR) total score, with subcategories for self, perception and experience. After crunching the numbers, lead author Brandy-Joe Milliron, Ph.D., an associate professor in Drexel University's College of Nursing and Health Professions, and her team discovered that people who felt more connected to nature tended to eat a more varied diet and consumed more fruits and vegetables than their more indoor-based peers.

"Nature relatedness has been associated with better cognitive, psychological and physical health and greater levels of environmental stewardship. Our findings extend this list of benefits to include dietary intake," Milliron tells Drexel News. "We found people with higher nature relatedness were more likely to report healthful dietary intake, including greater dietary variety and higher fruit and vegetable consumption."

The 2020-2025 United States Dietary Guidelines report that 9 out of 10 Americans don't eat the recommended amount of veggies, while 8 out of 10 of us fall short on fruit. So it's probably pretty clear that it's a boon for nature-bathers to skew toward eating more.

But the variety aspect is also important. According to a May 2018 study in the journal mSystems, individuals who ate 30 or more different plants per week had better gut health than others who ate 10 or fewer plants per week. That works out to about 4½ different plants each day; a handful of spinach, a frozen banana and a cup of berries in your morning smoothie plus a grain bowl with roasted broccoli and Brussels sprouts for lunch would already get you past your goal. The scientists involved in the 2018 research believe that a wide mix of fruits and veggies delivers different types of fiber and nutrients to feed the good bacteria in our guts, plus these foods tend to be naturally fairly low in calories and high in nutrition and leave less space on your plate for foods that are harder on our gut health, such as added sugars, artificial sweeteners, red meat and highly processed foods.

The Bottom Line

Since this study was relatively small, based on self reports of both diet and connectedness to nature, and looked at such a short time span (just one day), much more research is needed to confirm these findings as a more universal rule. In the future, Milliron and her co-authors hope to dive into the ways different communities experience and value nature, as well as the way other social and economic factors influence community identity, nature relatedness and dietary intake.

Until we know more, it certainly can't hurt to head outside, breathe in and chill out. Doing so will give your brain a break—and might subtly inspire you to fuel up with more fruits and vegetables.

"Nature-based health promotion interventions may increase nature relatedness across the lifespan and potentially improve dietary intake," Milliron adds. Plus, she says, "Augmenting dietary interventions with nature-based activities may lead to greater improvements in dietary quality."

If you could use some inspiration about how to pump up your produce consumption, join us on a 30-day eat more vegetables challenge. And if nature's your jam, we bet you'll adore this fruit- and veggie-packed 30-day sustainable eating challenge.