Eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily is associated with higher mental well-being — as much as not smoking, according to a recent study by British researchers.
This finding is interesting because positive mental well-being — which includes such psychological aspects as optimism, happiness, self-esteem, resilience and good relationships with others — is now generally recognized as an important predictor of overall health and longevity. In addition, past research has linked low mental well-being with mental health problems.
For the current study, researchers at the University of Warwick analyzed data from more than 14,000 participants (aged 16 and older) in the Health Survey for England, an annual survey that British health officials use to evaluate the public’s health and to inform their policy decisions. As part of the survey, the participants answered questions about their weight and about such health-related behaviors as smoking, alcohol use and fruit and vegetable consumption.
The survey-takers also answered questions specifically designed to assess their mental well-being. Those who scored in the top 15 percent on this part of the questionnaire were categorized as having “high mental wellbeing,” while those in the bottom 15 percent received a “low mental wellbeing” designation.
After crunching the data, the researchers found that 33.5 percent of the survey participants with high mental well-being ate five or more selections of fruits and vegetables daily, compared with only 6.8 percent of those with low mental well-being — an almost fivefold difference.
In addition, 31.4 percent of the participants with high mental well-being ate three to four servings of fruits and veggies daily, while 28.4 percent of those with low mental well-being ate one to two.
The findings were similar for both men and women.
Not smoking was the only other behavior examined in this study that was consistently associated with mental well-being. People in the high mental well-being category were more likely to have never smoked. Interestingly, alcohol use and body mass index (BMI) were not found to be associated with either positive or negative well-being.
Suggests correlation, not necessarily causation
Of course, this observational study does not prove that eating fruits and vegetables causes higher mental well-being. It could be that fruit and vegetable consumption is simply a marker for positive well-being — in other words, that people who are feeling good about themselves and their lives follow a more healthful diet.
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But, as the University of Warwick researchers indicate in their paper, this is not the first study to point to a relationship between mental health and fruit and vegetable consumption. An interesting 2013 study found, for example, that young adults tended to report being in a more positive mood the day after they increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables.
“Mental illness is hugely costly to both the individual and society, and mental wellbeing underpins many physical diseases, unhealthy lifestyles and social inequalities in health,” said co-author and epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Stewart-Brown in a statement released with the study. “It has become very important that we begin to research the factors that enable people to maintain a sense of wellbeing.”
The findings of this latest study contribute, she added “to the mounting evidence that fruit and vegetable intake could be one such factor and mean that people are likely to be able to enhance their mental wellbeing at the same time as preventing heart disease and cancer.”