We cannot go wrong with a higher plant-based intake that includes vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices. Studies have shown that consuming more plant-based ingredients reduces anxiety and depression because they contain a wide variety of micronutrients critical to physical and mental function, as well as complex carbs and fiber. Plants also help us to stay well hydrated.
There is evidence that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have better mental health, including lower rates of depression, perceived stress, and negative mood. (1) But when surveyed, they also will say that they experience better moods, greater life satisfaction, and have a stronger sense of purpose and fulfillment. If that’s not a recommendation for eating more fruits and vegetables, then I don’t know what is.
With that said, I don’t think it’s wise for many of those with depression and anxiety to completely cut out animal foods. Certain nutrients, such as long-chain omega-3 fats, vitamin B12, and heme iron, are found only in animal-based foods such as seafood, meat, eggs, and dairy. As health recommendations have trended toward more plant-based diets, one must consider the higher rates of vitamin B deficiencies in both vegetarian and vegan populations. A recent large study found higher levels of depressive symptoms in vegetarian men. (2)
Furthermore, DHA deficiency is implicated in many neurological disorders, and fish is a primary source of it. Vegetarians and vegans have reduced plasma DHA compared to omnivores. (3) You can be a healthy vegan, but I believe it takes more diligence, and you must be vigilant. One study suggested that curcumin (a primary component of turmeric) enhances DHA synthesis, which would be incredibly helpful for those with low DHA due to eating a plant-based diet or who do not consume fish. (4) Personally, I believe that the most balanced way of eating is a plant-rich diet with some modest quantities of meat, eggs, dairy, and seafood.
Aside from eating more plant-based foods in general, you can also benefit from increasing your consumption of raw ones. We know that both cooked fruits and vegetables and raw fresh fruits and vegetables provide the body with nutrients and healing. Raw foods, for the most part, provide us with more nutrients than cooked foods, although some nutrients in foods become more bioavailable when lightly cooked. However, there is evidence to support the mental health benefits of raw fruits and vegetables.
In a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Medicine, 422 adults aged 18 to 25 completed an online survey that assessed their typical consumption of raw, cooked, canned, and processed fruits and vegetables and compared it with their mental health, including depressive symptoms, anxiety, negative mood, positive mood, life satisfaction, and flourishing. This study showed that depressive and anxiety symptoms reduced significantly, negative mood decreased, and positive mood and life satisfaction significantly increased when participants ate more raw foods. (However, a flaw in the study is that the researchers did not differentiate between cooked fresh ingredients and canned foods.)
Among the raw foods identified by the study that relate to better mental health, these are the top 10: (5)
4. dark leafy greens, like spinach and kale
7. citrus fruits, like oranges and lemons
Another study verified the same principles, concluding: “The cooking and processing of raw foods have the potential to diminish nutrient levels, which likely limits the delivery of nutrients that are essential for optimal emotional functioning.” They went on to suggest that increasing raw fruit and vegetable consumption may “provide an accessible adjuvant approach to improving mental health.” (6)
Raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds make excellent snacks and are the ultimate “fast food.” Fresh berries make a great dessert. A carrot is so lovely to crunch on, as are apples. They’re nature’s candy. I encourage us all to snack on more raw foods like this in their wholesome, natural state.
1. A. Trichopoulou, et al., “Vegetable and Fruit: The Evidence in Their Favour and the Public Health Perspective,” International Journal of Vitamin Nutritional Research, vol. 73, no. 2 (March 2003), pp. 63–9, doi: 10.1024/0300-98184.108.40.206.
2. J.R. Hibbeln, et al., “Vegetarian Diets and Depressive Symptoms Among Men,” Journal of Affective Disorders, vol. 225 (January 1, 2018), pp. 13–17, doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2017.07.051.
3. M. Kornsteiner, I. Singer, and I. Elmadfa, “Very Low N-3 Long-chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Status in Austrian Vegetarians and Vegans,” Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, vol. 52, no. 1 (2008), pp. 37–47, doi: 10.1159/000118629.
4. A. Wu, et al., “Curcumin Boosts DHA in the Brain: Implications for the Prevention of Anxiety Disorders,” Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, vol. 1852, no. 5 (May 2015), pp. 951–61, doi: 10.1016/j.bbadis.2014.12.005.
5. K.L. Brookie, G.I. Best, and T.S. Conner. “Intake of Raw Fruits and Vegetables Is Associated with Better Mental Health Than Intake of Processed Fruits and Vegetables,” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 9, p. 487 (2018), doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00487.