One of the more frustrating things about being a health professional is the realization that being physically healthy is not necessarily motivation enough. It isn’t enough for a lot of people, and the older I get, the easier it is to not only accept this but to begin to understand it. It’s tough to be healthy unless you’re happy; some would say that it is impossible. Which is why we are often barking up the wrong tree when we advise people to eat more fruits and vegetables because the consumption of fresh produce has been associated with a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity, dementia, macular degeneration, etc. So don’t advise others to load up on leafy greens for these reasons. Instead, tell them to do it to be happier.
In a study conducted at the University of Warwick on 12,000+ people, participants’ happiness increased for each additional daily portion of fruit and vegetables up to eight portions per day. In fact, for people who ate almost no fruits or vegetables, to begin with, and who then increased to eight servings daily during the study, the increase in life satisfaction was equivalent to moving from unemployment to employment. The improvements in well-being occurred within 24 months. Why would this be? Well, previous research found that people with higher levels of a type of antioxidant (carotenoids) in their blood were more likely to be optimistic about the future. In case you’re considering loading up on carotenoids – they are found in pumpkin, winter squash, carrots, cantaloupe, sweet potato, spinach, collard greens, and kale. Here’s a recipe for a super-easy Kale and Sweet Potato Saute from the Real Food Dietitians.
Telling a 25-year old that they will reap health benefits from their fruit and vegetable intake in, oh, about 40 years isn’t likely to hold their interest for very long. But tell them that they might just be happier within two years? That might provide some motivation.
Is it possible that the research is skewed and that people who are happier, to begin with, tend to eat more fruits and vegetables? Yes, it’s possible. Could it be something other than fruits and vegetables causing the changes in satisfaction and happiness? Yes, it could be (for example) that people who eat more fruits and vegetables eat less refined starches, simple sugar, and additive-laden food. However, the simple fact is this: eating more fruits and vegetables certainly won’t lessen your level of happiness and might increase it. So why wouldn’t we promote this as yet another reason to reach for whole foods? Unless you’re too happy as it is…