Eating Your Way to Happiness

If long-term health benefits don’t motivate you to eat better, maybe the promise of a near-term mood lift will.

There are more studies linking healthy eating to better physical health than there are calories in a can of cola. But a strong body of work also ties improved diet to reduced risk of depression… and even happiness. Importantly, the research is not about fad diets. It simply shows how good nutrition can boost mood.

Compiling data from 16 separate research projects involving 46,000 people, new research out this week provides some of the most comprehensive evidence yet that any one of three factors—better nutrition, weight loss or fat reduction— is good for mental well-being.

“Adopting a healthier diet can boost peoples’ mood,” said study leader Joseph Firth of the University of Manchester.

A big takeaway from the study, published Feb. 5 in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine:

Don’t lean on specialized diets that force you to eat only this or that (aka “fad diets” or what I prefer to call “stupid diets”). Just eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and cut down on the highly processed junk food and other things you know are bad for you.

“The similar effects from any type of dietary improvement suggests that highly-specific or specialized diets are unnecessary for the average individual,” Firth said. “Instead, just making simple changes is equally beneficial for mental health.”

Just One Factor

No one study is going to provide the key to happiness, of course. So before we dig deeper into the connection between diet and happiness (below), let me point out that multiple studies find all sorts of connections among at least four major factors that likely work in concert to promote happiness.

As just one daisy-chain example, exercise can encourage you to eat better, and both of those things can improve your sleep, which is vital to physical health, and improvement in any one of those four factors can improve mood.

I look at it this way:

What to Eat

Several other less comprehensive studies point in the same direction as Firth’s new research. Here are just a few:

Among the elderly a diet rich in vegetables and whole grains reduced the odds of depression by 11, in research presented last year at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting.

An interesting but very small study last year in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience compared isolated islanders in Australia who had little access to fast food and ate lots of seafood to another group who regularly ate fast food. No surprise, more of the fast-food eaters (16 of 100) showed signs of depression than the heavy seafood eaters (3 of 100). (Yes, that’s a very small, inconclusive study. But it echoes other research, and I like the isolation aspect of the subjects.)

Here’s a bigger study, though narrow in its findings:

Sweetened beverages, including diet drinks, were linked to higher rates of depression in a research project that questioned 263,925 people age 50 and up over a 10-year period. Those who drank four sodas a day were 30 percent more likely to develop depression than those who abstained. Four? Really? Yikes.

(Total aside: In great news for caffeine lovers, the same research found coffee drinkers had slightly lower odds of developing depression than non-coffee drinkers.)

Not a Diet: A Way of Eating

Some of the most convincing evidence for how a good diet affects mental and physical health comes from several studies of the so-called Mediterranean diet, which is not a diet in the popular sense but rather a way of eating that goes back centuries. It favors plant-based food, including fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, as well as fish. And lots of olive oil. And very little meat.

The Mediterranean diet is tied to lower risk of heart disease and other ills. A 2012 study also linked it to better overall quality of life.

While this way of eating is certainly not the only one that can bring health benefits, anyone seeking to shift from a diet high in processed foods (anything in a box or package with a list of ingredients) to a more natural and healthy diet would be wise to take a look.

I could go on. There are oodles of studies like this. But The Happiness Quest isn’t just about avoiding depression or being physically healthier. So…

“Eating fruit and vegetables apparently boosts our happiness far more quickly than it improves human health.”—Andrew Oswald, University of Warwick

Healthy Eating & Happiness

We humans are impulsive — we struggle to do the important things today that offer benefits we might not see for years, such as a longer life or reduced risk of nasty ailments. If that sounds like you, consider that healthy eating may actually make you happier in the near term (as opposed to just lifting you out of depression).

A 2016 study in the American Journal of Public Health illustrated this.

For two years, researchers followed more than 12,000 people who kept food diaries and had their their psychological well-being measured. Those who shifted from eating almost no fruits and vegetables to downing up to eight portions daily saw improvements in well-being for each additional daily portion they consumed.

“Eating fruit and vegetables apparently boosts our happiness far more quickly than it improves human health,” said Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick. “People’s motivation to eat healthy food is weakened by the fact that physical-health benefits, such as protecting against cancer, accrue decades later. However, well-being improvements from increased consumption of fruit and vegetables are closer to immediate.”

Here’s an interesting takeaway from the study by Oswald and his colleague, Redzo Mujcic:

Those who consumed eight fruit-and-vegetable portions a day saw an increase in happiness, life satisfaction, and well-being equivalent to moving from unemployment to employment, the researchers said.

I know what you’re thinking: It’d be a challenge to stuff that many fruits and vegetables into your face each day. Here’s what I’m going to do: Fewer things with ingredients, more food that came out of the ground. It makes me happy just knowing simple steps like that can improve my mood.

UPDATE Dec. 30, 2020: After a year of looking into happiness and well-being more broadly, and with the help of a survey, I know a little more now than I did on Jan. 1, 2019. The results are here.

Independent health and science journalist, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience, writing about how we age and how to optimize your mind and body through time.

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