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Do you want to improve your mental health? Eat your greens.

Feel down? Forget your usual comfort foods. Try eating your greens instead.

Years of research point out that eating more vegetables is not only good for physical health, but can also improve mental health. It does not take much. Even adding just one more serving of fruit or vegetables to your plate each day can boost your mood. Here are some of the recent discoveries.

  • A 2023 British study associated higher fruit consumption with feelings of relaxation, confidence and energy.
  • A 2022 Australian fruit and vegetable study of more than 4,000 women showed that those who ate at least five servings of vegetables a day had a 19% lower risk of developing depression over a 15-year period than those who ate at most one serving. For fruit, four servings versus one meant 25 percent less likelihood of depression.
  • A meta-analysis of 18 studies found that for every 100 grams of vegetables consumed, the risk of depression decreased by 3%.
  • A study of food diaries found that the mental health benefit of eating more vegetables was equivalent to getting a job after being unemployed.
  • A UK study found that increasing daily consumption of fruit and vegetables by just one serving provides the same estimated increase in mental well-being as eight days of 10-minute walks.

There’s certainly growing evidence that high fruit and vegetable consumption helps mental health, especially anxiety, says Uma Naidoo, a physician and director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Links between fruit and vegetable consumption and mental well-being have been found in countries as diverse as Ghana, India, Russia and China. Also, all the extra plant foods may be the reason vegetarians and vegans tend to be less depressed than omnivores. (Although some studies have shown poorer mental health in vegetarians and vegans, some of them have been funded by the meat industry).

Do happy people eat vegetables or do vegetables make people happy?

Sure, it could just be that happy people gravitate toward carrots over cookies. And healthy eaters might possess some traits that potentially reduce the risk of depression or anxiety, but these questions typically can’t be answered in observational studies.

Now, several randomized control studies conducted in recent years offer further insights and suggest that eating greens actually makes us feel good.

In 2022, Angela De Leon, a nutrition biologist at Indiana University Bloomington, and her colleagues published the results of a study in which they randomized 75 people into two groups. The first group stayed on their regular diet. The second group received weekly deliveries of vegetables, carrots, courgettes, peppers and cabbage, among other items of their choice.

We’ve eliminated some of the cited barriers to vegetable consumption, which are cost, convenience and availability, said De Leon.

To make sure the participants were indeed eating their vegetables, the scientists measured levels of carotenoids in their blood and skin, which are phytochemicals that are a good indicator of fruit and vegetable consumption.

The results showed that after just eight weeks, people in the vegetable delivery group reported feeling noticeably happier than before, and happier than control group members.

Other studies suggest that eating fruits and vegetables can improve mental well-being almost instantly. In a 2021 study published in Psychology & Health, the more people indulged in fruits and vegetables on a given day, the more they said they enjoyed their experiences the next day. This established a virtuous circle, where uplifting emotions led participants to indulge in even healthier foods.

4 Strategies to Eat More Veggies: Start Not Overthinking It

Because vegetables improve your mood

One reason eating greens may boost mental well-being, experts say, is the substitution effect. Loading with plants can leave less room in your stomach for unhealthy foods.

The standard American diet is called SAD for a reason, Naidoo says. Research shows, for example, that high consumption of sweets increases the chances of feeling jittery, panicked, or hopeless.

Mental health benefits may also be due to getting more fiber, which can lead to a healthier microbiome.

The more soluble fiber we have in our diets, the more beneficial gut microbes will thrive, says Stephen Ilardi, a psychologist at the University of Kansas who researches the effects of lifestyle on depression.

The link between mental health and your microbiome

Studies show that gut microbes are key players in depression and anxiety, as the health of your microbiome influences serotonin production and regulates inflammation, both of which play a role in mental health. We have mountains of evidence now that gut microbes are very good at influencing brain and mental function, Ilardi said.

Phytochemicals, which are naturally produced plant compounds, also have profound anti-inflammatory effects, Ilardi said. Research suggests that polyphenols, a type of phytochemical found in high amounts in berries, artichokes, onions, spinach, nuts and seeds, might increase concentrations of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that help regulate mood and motivation.

A 2020 review of 37 studies showed that polyphenols reduce the risk of depression, while a randomized control trial published in 2023 concluded that drinking flavonoid-rich orange juice, a type of polyphenol, improves symptoms of depression.

The problem, of course, is convincing yourself to stick to a plant-rich diet, instead of reaching for ice cream or sugary treats whenever you’re feeling low. These foods are designed to tap into our cravings, says Naidoo.

Listen to an audio guide on mindful eating

To break unhealthy habits, Naidoo recommends mindful eating, which means paying attention to feelings of hunger, fullness, and the reasons why you want to eat. He also suggests keeping your kitchen stocked with healthy foods and getting rid of foods that aren’t good for you.

Finally, start adding more greens to your meals. De Leon points to research showing that it is through repeated exposure to foods that we begin to like ourselves. To make vegetables more appealing, he recommends watching cooking shows and experimenting with herbs and spices. Any vegetable can be made delicious, he says.

Have a question about healthy eating? E-mail EatingLab@washpost.com and we may answer your question in a future column.

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