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Could your greengrocer hold the secret to happiness?

The following article is written by nutritionist Associate Professor Tim Crowe from Deakin University’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences.

Eating fruits and vegetables is good for your health in so many different ways. Now in the first major scientific study of its kind, eating more of these powerhouse foods has been linked to a substantial increase in peoples’ happiness levels.

Fruits and vegetables have an abundance of health benefits. But despite the scientific evidence of their benefits, we don’t eat enough of these foods. In Australia, just 6% of people eat the recommended amount of vegetables each day. For fruit, only half eat the recommended number of serves.

In the search for perhaps a different angle to promote the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, researchers are looking at their link with psychological health. Previous research has found some interesting associations with fruit and vegetable consumption and improved psychological health. But what is lacking is a large-scale study to really solidify this link.

Using a large sample of more than 12,000 randomly selected people in Australia, researchers were able to track their diet, health, happiness, life satisfaction and wellbeing from 2009 to 2013.

The key to happiness?

So what was the key finding? Happiness, life satisfaction and wellbeing all went up for each extra daily portion of fruits and vegetables eaten. And this was after making allowance for factors such as changing incomes and personal circumstances. The happiness health links reached a peak at eight servings a day of fruits and vegetables. The improvements in mental health were seen within 24 months of increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables eaten.

The research team took it one step further and compared the mental health improvements to life changing situations. Someone going from eating no fruits and vegetables to eating eight portions a day for example, could experience an increase in life satisfaction equivalent to moving from unemployment to employment.

Finally the researchers looked at the effect of a pro-active fruit and vegetable consumption campaign on dietary habits. Here they found a link between the intensity of the campaign, its outcomes in people eating more fruit and veg, and positive mental health benefits.

A challenge in getting a person to want to eat more healthy food is that health benefits may take decades to materialise. That green salad today may (or may not) mean a lower risk of cancer in 30 years. On that time-scale, the mental health benefits linked to eating more fruits and vegetables are more immediate. And seeing improved mental health would help to reinforce the positive dietary change.

There are likely many reasons to explain a link between eating more fruits and vegetables and wellbeing. Higher levels of antioxidants is one possibility. Then there is the role of fibre in supporting a healthy population of gut bacteria. Gut fermentation products can act directly on the brain, potentially altering mood and behaviour.

What it all means

Diet and mental health is a rapidly growing research field. We can expect more research to come to light linking the benefits of plant-based foods with improved mental health. Rather than long-term, less-immediate benefits, future health campaigns will have a new angle to focus on. Who doesn’t want to feel happier?

Want to study food and nutrition further? Check out Deakin University’s range of courses in nutrition and dietetics. This piece first appeared on Tim Crowe’s website Thinking Nutrition, where you can find more information on eating and living well, exercise and weight management. 

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Tim Crowe
Tim Crowe

Associate Professor in Nutrition, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University
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