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Eating More Fruits and Vegetables May Reduce Stress, Study Finds

Woman selecting vegetables

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers suggest there’s a link between diet and mental wellbeing.
  • Lowering stress is crucial for reducing the risk for chronic conditions, including diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
  • When trying to include more produce in your diet, think baby steps rather than overhaul.

People who ate at least 16 ounces of fruits and vegetables daily reported 10 percent lower stress levels than those who ate less than 8 ounces, according to a new study in the journal Clinical Nutrition.

Researchers looked at more than 8,600 participants of the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study, with people ranging in age from 25 to 91. The larger study collected a range of health information, including dietary choices, medical conditions, and quality of life assessments.

Overall, poor nutritional habits were linked to higher perceived stress. While more fruit and vegetable consumption was linked with lower stress, particularly in middle-aged adults.

Chronic Stress, Chronic Problems

One challenge with the recent study was that researchers were not able to determine cause and effect. For example, it’s possible that people who feel less stressed are more apt to eat healthy food, while higher stress levels could lead to unhealthy food choices—rather than fruits and vegetables lowering stress simply through consumption.

That said, prolonged stress has been associated with higher levels of inflammation in the body, according to William Li, MD, author of Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself.

“Your emotional health can influence inflammation in your body,” he says. “Studies show people who are calm, feel well-adjusted, and happy tend to have lower levels of inflammation. On the other hand, people suffering from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, or reacting to emotional hostility have been shown to have higher levels of inflammatory markers in their blood.” 

William Li, MD

The antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables can help reduce this inflammation. Eating them more frequently can be a good part of a stress management plan.

— William Li, MD

A study in Future Science OA noted that diseases linked to both stress and inflammation include:

  • Cardiovascular dysfunctions
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Autoimmune syndromes
  • Depression and anxiety

"The antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables can help reduce this inflammation," Li said. "Eating them more frequently can be a good part of a stress management plan."

Next Steps

When it comes to incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet, many people struggle to make a significant boost, according to Maggie Ward, RDN, nutrition director of The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Mass.

Often, they think there has to be a major overhaul toward plant-based eating, but she suggests it’s actually much better to take it slow and add fruits and vegetables gradually.

“Whenever you’re making a fairly big dietary change, your body needs time to adjust,” she says. “If the transition is too dramatic, especially with fiber-rich produce, you may have digestive upset and bloating. That might lead you to think that vegetables and fruits just ‘don’t agree with you,’ when the issue is that you’ve tried to introduce too much, too soon.”

Meet Your Needs

Individual needs are another factor to keep in mind. Although the World Health Organization has a general recommendation of 14 ounces daily—and the Food and Drug Administration advises 4.5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day—your consumption level is often tied to how many calories you need.

For example, an elderly woman with several chronic conditions and limited mobility, who’s 5’1” and weighs 120 pounds, will have very different nutritional needs than a young male athlete who’s 6’1” and 200 pounds, according to Terry Wahls, MD author of nutrition book The Wahls Protocol.

Terry Wahls, MD

There are so many ways to make vegetables delicious, but if that’s not part of your food experience, it can be uncomfortable. Use a phased approach where you’re putting more into soups, sandwiches, and smoothies, for example.

— Terry Wahls, MD

In both cases, Wahls suggests working with a nutrition professional to ensure that daily macronutrient needs—protein, carbohydrates, and fats—are being sufficiently met. Also, she agrees that making the transition from a diet heavy in processed foods can take time.

“There are so many ways to make vegetables delicious, but if that’s not part of your food experience, it can be uncomfortable,” she says. “Use a phased approach where you’re putting more into soups, sandwiches, and smoothies, for example. Just try to get a little bit more every week until you’re above the recommended amount.”

What This Means For You

In addition to numerous health benefits, fruits and vegetables may offer some stress relief as well, likely due to lowered levels of inflammation.

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Article Sources
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  1. Simone Radavelli-Bagatini, et al. Fruit and vegetable intake is inversely associated with perceived stress across the adult lifespanClinical Nutrition, 2021; 40 (5): 2860 DOI: 10.1016/j.clnu.2021.03.043

  2. Mariotti A. The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future Sci OA. 2015;1(3):FSO23. Published 2015 Nov 1. doi:10.4155/fso.15.21