Food and Mood: Is Lack of Healthy Food Behind U.S. Mental Health Crisis?

by Julie Wilson

There’s no way around it. Food affects our mood, big time.

Just as eating starchy, refined carbohydrates—think pasta, white bread and other processed foods—makes us feel drowsy and sluggish, eating fresh, raw fruits and vegetables can have the opposite effect, brightening our mood and our outlook on life.

Fruits and veggies, most effective when eaten in their raw form, boost mental health, while also alleviating symptoms of depression, according to a new study published in the Frontiers of Psychology journal. The research suggests that there’s truth in the old saying, “You are what you eat.”

The notion that eating raw fruits and veggies can make us feel happy and improve our mental health is huge—particularly in a nation embroiled in a mental health crisis centered on depression and anxiety, among other mental health issues.

The link between food and mood

The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that one in five adults—or about 44 million Americans—experience some form of mental illness in a given year.

Depression, one of the most common mental health conditions in the U.S., affects upwards of 16 million American adults, with 32 being the median age at which depression sets in, says the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

This hardly seems normal. Why are young Americans, who should be enjoying the prime of their lives, increasingly having to battle the onset of a serious and sometimes life-threatening illness like depression?

Mounting research suggests that the answer may lie in what we eat.

Scientists at the University of Otago in New Zealand surveyed 422 adults between the ages of 18 and 25, collecting data on raw versus cooked produce consumption. The study took in to account other variables including the participant’s weight, exercise habits, overall diet and socioeconomic status.

Researchers observed a link between the consumption of raw fruits and veggies and improved mental well-being—a correlation scientists say could be a result of higher nutrient levels in raw produce versus those in processed and cooked produce.

“Raw fruits and vegetables may provide greater levels of micronutrients than processed fruits and vegetables, which could explain their stronger association with improved mental well-being,” the study states.

Those who ate more raw fruits and veggies not only reported an improvement in their mood, but also greater feelings of life satisfaction and lessened feelings of depression.

Eating more veggies—easier said than done

It goes without saying that nearly all of us could stand to eat more fruits and veggies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends we eat 2 to 3 cups of vegetables per day. Yet more than 90 percent of us aren’t meeting that recommendation.

A few factors are to blame, one being that schools don’t serve veggies, so kids grow up without developing a taste for them.

But the reality is this: If every American wanted to eat the USDA-recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, they couldn’t—because there aren’t enough to go around.

We have the Farm Bill to thank for that. The Farm Bill, a massive piece of legislation that determines how $90 billion a year is spent to shape our food system, favors subsidies that support processed, GMO junk foods over healthy, nutrient-rich veggies.

If health food is one of the solutions to America’s raging mental health crisis, then why isn’t the government working harder to make these foods available and affordable to all?

The answer is that Congress is too busy using the Farm Bill to subsidize the richest landowners growing monocultures of Monsanto’s pesticide-drenched genetically engineered grains used to make products like high fructose corn syrup, ethanol and feed for animals in factory farms.

Fortunately, there’s good news. Once every five years, the Farm Bill comes up for reauthorization, giving Congress a chance to rewrite it. This year, 2018, it’s up again.

If Congress wants to help reduce diet-related disease, it should include legislation in the Farm Bill to encourage the production of more organic vegetables. Please take action today, to ask Congress to provide more support in the next Farm Bill for nutrient-dense vegetables.

Julie Wilson is communications associate for the Organic Consumers Association. To keep up with OCA’s news and alerts, sign up here.