well-being and nutrition

Can an apple a day keep the blues away? The psychological benefits of good nutrition

By Sue Mah

Mom was right when she told you to eat your fruits and veggies. But what your mom probably didn’t know is that there are so many more health benefits to eating apples, pears, broccoli and carrots!

If you had to name one health benefit of eating fruit and vegetables, what would come to mind? Heart disease prevention? Lower risk of cancer? Better weight control? A healthier diet with more fibre? All of those are indeed well-known benefits, however emerging research points to a number of psychological benefits too.

Don’t worry, be happy

Researchers from the University of Warwick in England and the University of Queensland in Australia looked at the food diaries of over 12,000 adults between 2007-2013. Published in the “American Journal of Public Health” in August 2016, the study found that fruit and vegetable consumption was associated with greater self-reported happiness, life satisfaction and well-being.

The benefits of happiness increased incrementally with each extra serving of fruit and vegetables, up to eight servings per day. Canada’s Food Guide recommends that adults aim for 7-10 servings of fruit and veggies daily. The bad news is that, according to Statistics Canada, only half of Canadian women are getting enough. The situation is worse for men – only about one-third are actually eating enough fruit and vegetables.

Here’s another interesting result from the study: People who changed their behaviour from eating almost no fruit or veggies in a day to eating eight servings a day experienced an increase in life satisfaction equal to the feeling of moving from being unemployed to employed. These improvements in happiness happened relatively quickly and may be an added incentive to help consumers enjoy more produce all year long.

Better psychological well-being

A recent study published in the “PLOS ONE” journal this past February found that eating fruits and vegetables can improve one’s psychological well-being in as little as two weeks. In this study, led by researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand, 171 students (aged 18-25) were divided into three different groups. Group 1 was asked to continue eating their normal diet. Group two was given two extra servings of fresh fruits and vegetables (such as kiwi, oranges, apples and carrots) every day for 14 days. And, Group 3 was given prepaid produce vouchers as well as daily text reminders to eat more fruits and vegetables. All groups were asked to self-evaluate their mood, vitality and motivation at the start and end of the study.

After the two weeks, not only did the Group 2 students increase their overall fruit-and-veggie intake, but they were also the only group to show improvements in their psychological well-being, particularly more vitality and higher motivation than at the start of the study. This was the first study to show that providing fruit and veggies to young adults can lead to short-term improvements in their level of vitality and motivation. The researchers aren’t exactly sure why fruit and veggies cause this beneficial effect, though they guess that it may be a combination of nutrients including vitamin C and carotenoids found in these foods.

nutrition well-being

Curiosity cultivators

The same researchers explored the relationship between eating fruit and vegetables with feelings of engagement, curiosity, creativity, meaning or purpose in life. Published in the May 2015 “British Journal of Health Psychology,” this study looked at 405 adults who completed an online food diary for 13 consecutive days. Each day, the participants recorded their intake of fruit and veggies, as well as their feelings of curiosity, creativity, positivity and negativity.

Interestingly, those who ate more fruit and vegetables also reported more intense feelings of curiosity, greater creativity and higher positivity compared to those who ate fewer servings of these foods. These findings are purely observational, however they do point at the benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption beyond physical health.

Be a change agent!

As restaurateurs and foodservice professionals, you can champion healthy eating for all Canadians. Here’s what you can to do to help your patrons and customers reap the many health benefits of eating fruit and vegetables:

  • Offer fruit and veggies in all of your menus categories – appetizers, side dishes, mains, desserts and beverages/cocktails.
  • Consider offering a complimentary plate of veggies and dip in addition to or instead of bread at the table. If you serve it, they will eat it!
  • Help make the healthy choice the easy choice. Whether your focus is cafeterias, dorms, seniors’ residences, quick service, restaurants or workplaces, make it easy for consumers and patrons to include fruit and vegetables in their meals throughout the day.
  • Create your summer menus and promotional offerings with fresh, local produce. From now to August, it’s peak season for all-star produce such as apricots, berries, cherries, watermelon, beets, broccoli, corn and tomatoes. Bake a berry crumble. Tantalize your patrons’ taste buds with a refreshing tomato-based gazpacho. Whip up a watermelon and feta cheese salad. The options are absolutely endless!
  • Get on the purple trend. One of the hottest trends for 2017 is purple-hued produce which are filled with health-enhancing antioxidants. Think purple cauliflower, purple asparagus, elderberries, purple grapes, purple sweet potatoes and purple corn. We eat with our eyes first, and what’s not to love about these gorgeous gems.
  • Be creative with beets. Kale is out, beets are in! From root to leaf, beets are incredibly versatile. The roots can be used raw or roasted, sliced or diced – from salads to desserts. Beet hummus is popping up everywhere on menus and in grocery stores. Minimize food waste and make use of the beet leaves – sauté them with garlic and olive oil, or simply add them to a soup or salad.
  • Experiment with exotic produce. Try fresh, juicy lychee, mangosteen or rambutan in a superfood salad. Pair grated or spiralized kohlrabi with apples and carrots.
  • Tuck a small packet of dried fruit rather than candies with the dinner check. Both offer a hint of after dinner sweetness, but the dried fruit has the added benefit of fibre.

About the author:

Sue Mah, MHSc, RD – As a dietitian and chef’s daughter, Sue has a natural passion for healthy, wholesome, delicious food. Named the 2017 Dietitian of the Year by the Dietitians of Canada Business and Industry Network, Sue is a recognized trends expert and nutrition communications consultant. She is President of Nutrition Solutions Inc. and one of Canada’s leading media dietitians. In addition, Sue is Co-Founder of Nutrition for NON-Nutritionists, an agency offering nutrition training to food and beverage professionals across North America. Follow Sue on twitter / instagram @SueMahRD or contact www.NutritionSolutions.ca.

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