Can you eat yourself happy?

How do you feel when you’re eating a healthy diet full of vegetables, fruit and other good things? Full of energy and happier?

And when you’ve been overdoing the processed and junk foods, eating and drinking more than you need, do you feel sluggish, tired, maybe even grumpy?

Although some may scoff that these kinds of feelings are ‘all in the mind’, a growing body of research is pointing to a definite food/mood connection. New research comes from the University of Otago Departments of Psychology and Nutrition, whose study found that eating more fruit and vegetables may make young people calmer, happier and more energetic in their daily lives.

The trial asked participants (all aged around 20) to log what they were eating, including specifying how many serves of fruit and veges they had each day as well as the unhealthy foods in their diets, and to record daily details about how they were feeling. The results showed a strong day-to-day relationship between more positive mood and higher fruit and vegetable consumption.

“On days when people ate more fruits and vegetables, they reported feeling calmer, happier and more energetic than they normally did,” says researcher Dr Tamlin Conner.

To understand which comes first – feeling positive or eating healthier foods – Dr Conner and her team dug deeper and found that eating fruits and vegetables predicted improvements in positive mood the next day, suggesting that healthy foods may improve mood.

So how much fruit and veg do you actually need to eat to start feeling happier? The Otago researchers say we’d need seven to eight total servings of fruits and vegetables per day to notice ‘a meaningful positive change’. That’s more than we are commonly urged to eat – most of us have ‘5 plus a day’ committed to memory – but it is in line with recommendations elsewhere in the world, including Australia, where ‘5 plus 2’ (five veges and two fruit) is the official advice. Really, as I’m constantly saying, more is better, especially when it comes to colourful veges. It’s not difficult once you get going. Think of a serving as half a cup of cooked veges or a cup of salady, leafy ones and just repeat to yourself at every meal: “How can I add more to this meal?”

Another well-known area of food and mood research is omega-3 fats. Long-chain omega-3s (the ones found in fish) are important for a healthy mind throughout life, and there have been a number of studies looking at the relationship between mental health and the intake of omega-3s. What we know is that these essential fats are important, especially in young children where they’re vital for development of the brain and eyes. There may be some benefits for depression and the prevention of dementia, although as researchers are fond of saying, more research is needed. In the meantime, getting oily fish such as salmon a couple of times a week is a great idea to keep you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

First published: Feb 2013

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