Monday 21st January – the Monday of the last full week in January – has been labelled ‘Blue Monday’, to signify the most depressing day of the year. Bad weather, empty pockets and that ‘back to work’ feeling can combine to make the best of us pretty miserable at this time of year.
The good news is that our mental and emotional health has been shown to be linked to our diet, suggesting that we can choose to eat our way to happiness. A new study of more than 8000 adults in the UK has found links between our food choices and mental health (1). The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Warwick and looked at the fruit and vegetable intake of each individual, comparing it to measures of life satisfaction, mental wellbeing and self-reports of happiness, nervousness and low mood.
The researchers also took into account other variables such as meat consumption, alcohol intake and social and economic factors, so that these factors would not influence the results of the study.
They found that both happiness and mental health appear to rise in a ‘dose-response way’ along with the number of daily servings of fruit and vegetables. Wellbeing appeared to peak at seven portions of fruit and vegetables each day.
Study co-author Professor Sarah Stewart-Brown, Professor of Public Health at Warwick Medical School, said “the statistical power of fruit and vegetables was a surprise. Diet has traditionally been ignored by wellbeing researchers”.
There are a number of reasons why fruit and vegetable consumption might give our mental wellbeing a boost. For example, these foods provide an abundance of minerals such as potassium (2) and vitamins such as folic acid (3) which have an impact on adrenaline and serotonin receptors. Fruits and vegetables also provide a whole host of flavonoids, some of which can enter the brain and might very well have a positive influence on mood. Vitamin C, found in abundance in fruit and veg, is essential for the synthesis of noepinephrine, a chemical message in the brain that affects mood.
Of course this type of research is not able to prove causality. Do seven portions of fruit and vegetables create happiness, or do happy and well-adjusted individuals tend to eat more fruit and vegetables? The researchers admit that further controlled trials would be needed to prove such a link, but they maintain that the study’s results are compelling.
In the meantime, there is no harm in boosting your daily fruit and vegetable intake. It will certainly boost your physical health and it might just stave off those January blues. Just five small changes can help you to increase your daily fruit and vegetable intake:
- Incorporate fruits and vegetables into your snacks by keeping raw carrots and other crunchy vegetables to hand.
- Add chopped fruit or berries to your morning cereal.
- Try a daily fruit or vegetable smoothie.
- Replace your lunchtime sandwich with vegetable soup.
- Replace your usual dessert with a fruit salad.
1. David G. Blanchflower, Andrew J. Oswald, Sarah Stewart-Brown (2012), Is Psychological Well-being Linked to the Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables? Warwick Economic Research Paper no. 996.
2. Torres S J, C A Nowson and A Worsley (2009), “Dietary electrolytes are related to mood”, British Journal of Nutrition, 100(5),1038-45.
3. Gilbody S, T Lightfoot and T Sheldon (2007), “Is low folate a risk factor for depression? A meta‐analysis and exploration of heterogeneity”, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 61(7), 631–637.
4. Image courtesy of ctr’s.