Increasing fruit and vegetable intake to eight a day can make people happier as well as healthier, according to Anglo-Australian research teams from the University of Warwick and the University of Queensland. Academics have been working collaboratively to compare happiness and feelgood factors alongside the more often measured health and nutrition statistics and their conclusions came down firmly in favour of adding more fruit and veg to one’s diet.
The study: Evolution of well-being and happiness after increases in the consumption of fruit and vegetables represents the first major-scale scientific attempt to explore psychological well-being beyond traditional studies that have found that fruit and vegetables can reduce the risk of cancer and heart attacks, as well as various other diseases, ailments and conditions.
The researchers discovered that people who switched from eating almost no fruit and vegetables to eating eight portions a day recorded an immediate increase in life satisfaction. The impact of the jump in personal satisfaction is being compared by scientists to that of moving from unemployment to employment. Continuing the diet led to a prolonged boost in mental well being across a 24-month period. The lead researchers, Redzo Mujcic and Andrew Oswald, believe that a proven psychological pay-off from improved nutritional balance could prove to be a more important message to consumers than references to a lower long-term health risk.
Professor Oswald says: “Eating fruit and vegetables apparently boosts our happiness far more quickly than it improves human health. 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.”
His colleague Dr Mujcic added: “Perhaps our results will be more effective than traditional messages in convincing people to have a healthy diet. There is a psychological payoff now from fruit and vegetables – not just a lower health risk decades later.”
The findings, of course, immediately challenge the UK accepted norm of recommending consumers should eat five portions of vegetables and fruit daily. The study focused on food diaries kept by a random selection of 12,000 people within the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey. People within the survey had their psychological well being measured regularly and adjustments were made for changes in income and personal circumstances. They also looked at information from the Australian Go for 2&5 campaign, which ran in some Australian states to promote the consumption of two portions of fruit and five portions of vegetables daily.
The results showed a clear correlation between happiness, health and eating eight portions of fruit and vegetables daily. Alterations in fruit and vegetables intake were reflected by an improved feel good factor. Happiness benefits were detected for each extra daily portion of fruit and vegetables consumed.
The researchers admit to not being entirely sure why this improved feelgood factor occurs. They suggest that it may be related to the presence of antioxidants, or maybe a connection between optimism and carotenoids in the blood, but were keen to point out that this needs further research.
Although it is the biggest study of its kind, this is by no means the first time that a link between the intake of fresh produce and mental wellbeing has been made. Two years ago, a report by the University of Queensland’s School of Population Health indicated that women who eat less than two portions of fruit daily experience a greater risk of developing depression. Professor Gita Mishra from the University of Queensland said that the six-year study of more than 6,000 woman had revealed a definite link between fruit consumption and the onset of depression.
She said: “We found that women who ate at least two servings a day were less likely to suffer from depression than women who ate fewer servings, even after taking into account other factors such as smoking, alcohol, body mass index, physical activity, marital status and education. We also found that eating two or more servings of fruit a day protected women from developing depression in the future.”
Reactions from the fruit and vegetable industry and nutritionists immediately focused on the problems of trying to get consumers to eat more fruit and vegetables when many struggle with 5 a day; as well as calling for more research into the happiness factor. While the research was welcomed, industry insiders are at pains to emphasise that there is still a long way to go in the battle to get people to eat more fruit and vegetables.
Nutrition scientist Sarah Coe says: “Consuming up to eight portions a day as the study suggests would be challenging for most people, as only a third of adults are currently achieving the recommended minimum of five portions a day. A healthy, varied diet containing a variety of fruit and vegetables is known to be beneficial for physical and mental health. However, as it is not known from this study why eating more fruit and veg may be associated with improved well being, more research is needed in this area.”
The British Nutrition Foundation also pointed to the problem of trying to get people to actually eat enough vegetables by existing standards. It joined calls for more research on the wellbeing factor as this could encourage people to eat more vegetables and fruit.
From the industry perspective, Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, says: “Any encouragement to get people to consume more fresh fruit and vegetables is good. It is important not to confuse people as the average intake is usually below four portions. People are not always aware of what constitutes fresh fruit and vegetables. I think we can be cautious about happiness claims; the important message is that fresh fruit is a crucial part of a balanced diet.”
At the Vegan Society, dietitian Heather Russell comments: “It is great that researchers are exploring the benefits of increased fruit and vegetable intake for both mental and physical health. This food group is an important source of many nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and fibre. Many people in the UK could improve the quality of their diets by increasing their intake.”
Could the industry benefit from telling people that fresh produce will put a smile on their face, rather than cure them of their medical ills? Produce Business UK would love to hear your thoughts.