For many of us, 2020 has been a year of unprecedented stress—from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our lives, to extreme weather and natural disasters, to racial injustice and political divisions. Rates of depression in the US have increased more than threefold since the onset of the pandemic in March. Levels of anxiety and stress have also escalated.
What can help us maintain emotional equilibrium during this challenging time? In addition to seeking professional help when needed, there are also many lifestyle changes that can support us in feeling better emotionally. For example, exercise and meditation are well-known practices for reducing depression and improving mood. Social connections and engaging in pleasurable activities are also beneficial.
The impact of nutrition on mental health is often overlooked. When I became vegan, I wondered if a plant-based diet, which has been shown to prevent and reverse many physical diseases, also had an impact on emotional well-being. As I dove into the research, I discovered that the same plant-strong diet that contributes to a healthier immune system and that lessens risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer is also helpful for improving our mental health and emotional states.
In brief, here are some of the research findings:
- Several studies found that individuals who ate more servings of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis scored higher on measures of emotional well-being, life satisfaction, and happiness, compared to those who ate lesser amounts. The high intake of fruits and veggies was also associated with less depression, anxiety, and psychological distress. These studies suggest that 7 to 10 servings per day may be optimal.
- Fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with greater emotional flourishing, including sense of meaning, purpose, curiosity, and creativity. In one study, young adults who ate more servings of fruits and veggies scored higher on these measures than those who consumed less. And the same individuals reported higher levels of these positive mood states on the days they ate more fruits and vegetables compared to the days they ate lesser amounts.
- Cross-sectional studies that assessed mood states in vegans and vegetarians found lower levels of depression, anxiety, and emotional distress compared to omnivores.
- Omnivores who were asked to eliminate meat, poultry, and fish had improved mood scores after two weeks on a vegetarian diet, compared to control subjects who continued eating meat.
- In yet another study, participants who ate a vegan diet as part of an intervention for health and weight loss not only had improved health measures, but also had decreased depression and anxiety and improved emotional well-being compared to control subjects who did not change their diet.
Why does a plant-based diet seem to help mood? Research suggests that the nutrients and antioxidants in plant foods promote a healthy balance of feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain. In addition, plant foods have been shown to be anti-inflammatory, which appears to have a beneficial impact on mood. In contrast, meat, eggs, and dairy are associated with higher levels of inflammatory compounds, which may negatively impact mental and emotional states.
So maybe we should be “prescribing” 7 to 10 servings of fruits and veggies per day (along with other plant foods such as whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds) to lessen the risk of depression and anxiety, as well as to improve our capacity to cope well emotionally with daily life challenges.
On a personal level, I have enjoyed greater overall happiness since starting a plant-based diet many years ago. I believe that part of the benefit is due to a much healthier, high-nutrient diet, with fewer processed and inflammatory foods, as the research above would suggest.
But there are also benefits beyond the biochemical effects of my food. Choosing not to eat animal flesh or products, and to eat only plant foods has added joy, freedom, creativity, and peace, along with a sense of lightness and inner alignment. (For more on my plant-based journey, see this article).
There are many things we don’t have control over that may impact our stress level, our mood, and our coping. But we can make choices each day to support our emotional resilience and well-being. We can create a lifestyle that includes exercise, meditation, social connections, and positive activities. And we can make a conscious choice to increase our daily intake of nutrient-dense plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils, whole grains, and nuts and seeds, while decreasing foods that promote inflammation.
I invite you to a challenge—if you are eating less than the recommended amounts of fruits and veggies, how about committing to eating more over the next two weeks and see how this impacts your health, energy, and emotional state?
Consider tracking your daily intake of nutrient-dense fruits and veggies with the Daily Dozen app created by Dr. Michael Greger.
Wanting to eat healthier, but concerned about food costs? Check out these resources for plant-powered eating on a budget.
Angela Crawford, Ph.D. is a psychologist, transformational coach, and vegan lifestyle educator.
Note: A revised and updated version of this article (Flourishing Emotionally with Plant-Powered Nutrition) was published on the Main Street Vegan Blog (March 30, 2021).