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A new study highlights a list of 10 foods believed to promote better mental health.

Arielle Weg
April 17, 2018

It's been a little over a year since I began tracking everything I eat in a food journal. It all started after I bought a copy of Eat Pretty Live Well—painstakingly taking the time to keep track of everything I ate, yes, but also how it made me feel. Why did I eat this particular meal? How did it impact my day? These are questions I answered, which led to much more than just a list.

I found that even though that what many would consider an "unhealthy" meal shared with friends definitely wouldn’t shatter my diet and lifestyle—everything in moderation, right?—I hated how it made me feel. Heavy foods left my body feeling sluggish, and in turn I felt less motivated and energized throughout my day.

Looking back on days I spent in the kitchen working with fresh produce, a therapeutic feat of its own for me, I realized that those experiences had a major impact on my week and, more importantly, my mental health moving forward. I felt more motivated to go to the gym, get out of bed in the morning, and even maintain a healthy diet when I knew I had fresh options in the fridge.

And lo and behold, I stumbled upon research establishing the connection between food and mental health I've been experiencing all this time.

A recent study published by researchers at the University of Otago in Frontiers in Psychology put my feelings into words. The research found eating raw fruits and vegetables is associated with better mental health compared to reaching for processed produce.

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This particular study assessed more than 400 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 in New Zealand and the United States. Participants completed surveys about their intake of raw produce versus cooked, canned, and processed fruits and vegetables. Researchers then compared the diets to firsthand reports of mental health, such as depressive feelings, anxiety, mood, and life satisfaction.

The research found that raw produce was associated with lower depressive symptoms and higher positive mood and life satisfaction. And what's more is that the study linked these 10 feel-good foods to optimal mental health: Carrots, bananas, apples, dark leafy greens, grapefruit, lettuce, citrus fruits, fresh berries, cucumber, and kiwifruit.

Young adults were chosen to be the focal point of the study because this age group tends to have the lowest fresh food intake and highest risk for mental illness, according to Science Daily.

You might ask—if I’m eating my fruits and veggies, why does it matter if they’re raw or not? The study suggests raw produce provides significantly more nutrients than cooked or processed foods, but that doesn't mean that you should forego cooked vegetables altogether.

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These findings might have something to do with previous research that found water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C and folate are sensitive to heat. Cooking them can remove a significant amount of nutrients, which might be another reason why our moods tend to improve during summertime, when we’re surrounded by an increase of fresh produce.

I’m a pretty big fan of eating any fruit or vegetable, whether it’s a juicy peach right off the farmers’ market stand or a can of chunked pineapple. Will the fresher foods do your body better? From personal experience and this study—probably. But will your body be grateful for the nutrients either way? Definitely.