High Vegetable and Fruit Intake Lowers Risk of Depression, Study Shows

Vegetables and Fruit
Vegetables and Fruit.

 fcafotodigita l/ Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A new study identified a link between depression and the intake of fruits and vegetables.
  • Researchers found that those who ate more fruits and vegetables had a 20% lower risk of developing depression.
  • To see results, researchers recommend eating a variety of vegetables and fruit in a rainbow of colors.

Depression affects more than 16.1 million American adults each year. Symptoms include a persistent feeling of sadness, low mood, and loss of interest and pleasure in life.

While therapy and medication are often prescribed to treat depression, researchers are also interested in how nutrition plays a role and whether a nutritious diet can help prevent or treat depressive symptoms.

In fact, it has long been known that a diet filled with vegetables and fruit can help ward off chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. Now, a new study published in The European Journal of Nutrition shows that a high intake of vegetables and fruit can also decrease the risk of developing depression.

"People who ate more fruit and vegetables had a 20% lower risk of depression," says Simone Radavelli-Bagatini, PhD candidate at the Institute for Nutrition Research at Edith Cowan University in Australia, and one of the researchers on this study.

About the Study

Past studies have shown that a high intake of vegetables and fruit may ease depression. The aim of the current study was to examine the association between depression and habitual intake of specific types of fruits and vegetables, including everything from bananas, apples, pears, and citrus fruits to cruciferous vegetables (cabbage-family plants like broccoli and leafy greens) and alliaceous vegetables (bulbous veggies like onions and garlic). They also included red, yellow, and orange vegetables as well as legumes.

Simone Radavelli-Bagatini, PhD Candidate

Interestingly, yellow, orange, red, and leafy green vegetables had a stronger link with a lower risk for depression.

— Simone Radavelli-Bagatini, PhD Candidate

The study included 4,105 Australian men and women age 25 and older that were part of the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study. Their vegetable and fruit intake was assessed using a 74-item food frequency questionnaire at baseline, 5 years, and 12 years.

All types of vegetables and fruits were assessed in the questionnaire, except for fruit juice, canned fruit, dried fruit, and fried or roasted potatoes. Symptoms of depression were assessed using a validated 10-item Centre for Epidemiology Studies Short Depression Scale at the 12-year mark.

The researchers discovered an association between vegetable and fruit consumption and the risk of depression. But, not all vegetables and fruit offer the same results. It turns out that variety is important, and eating a rainbow of colors may provide the best benefits to combat depression.

"Interestingly, yellow, orange, red, and leafy green vegetables had a stronger link with lower risk for depression," says Radavelli-Bagatini. "Also, consuming four to six different vegetables a day was associated with 24% to 42% lower risk of depression, compared to three or fewer vegetables."

The researchers report that the largest dietary benefit was seen with people who were eating more than 250 grams per day of vegetables and fruit. That means eating at least three of four 1/2-cup servings of vegetables and fruit per day.

Why Vegetables and Fruit Impact Depression

Vegetables and fruits are filled with an array of nutrients that work synergistically to combat disease. They can have an impact on everything from the heart and the brain to hormonal health.

"Depression has been linked to oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, and many components in fruit and vegetables have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, such as carotenoids, flavonoids, and vitamin K, which could improve mental well-being," says Radavelli-Bagatini.

Additionally, some amino acids and minerals present in fruit and vegetables seem to increase the “happy hormones” (such as serotonin and dopamine), says Radavelli-Bagatini. These hormones regulate mood and promote positive feelings and happiness.

Anya Rosen, MS, RD, LD, CPT

Vegetables and fruits are rich in vitamins A, C, E, and other phytonutrients that act as antioxidants.

— Anya Rosen, MS, RD, LD, CPT

The news that vegetables and fruit combat depression comes as no surprise to Anya Rosen, MS, RD, LD, CPT, a functional medicine dietitian based in New York City.

"Vegetables and fruits are rich in vitamins A, C, E, and other phytonutrients that act as antioxidants," says Rosen. "Many mood disorders, including depression, are related to stress. Antioxidants help combat oxidative stress in the brain, which promotes optimal neurotransmitter function."

Rosen adds that plant foods are also a source of probiotics, which help promote a robust microbiome.

"Gut health and mental health go hand-in-hand," she says.

What to Eat to Reduce the Risk of Depression

Every person is different, and diet alone may not combat depression. It is vital to work with a healthcare provider or a mental health professional for a robust plan that may include diet changes, counseling, supplements, and medication.

"For clients who are struggling with depression, I recommend an omnivorous diet that is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and high-quality protein foods like eggs, poultry, meat, seafood, and cultured dairy," says Rosen.

She explains that animal-based foods are a rich source of B-vitamins and amino acids, which play a major role in mood disorders, and that whole grains help boost serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone.

Supplements including omega-3 and vitamin D may be helpful as well, says Erica Rew Sparks, MDS, RD/LD, owner of Nutritious Living, LLC. Meanwhile, alcohol—especially in high amounts—can exacerbate depression. If you choose to drink alcohol at all, it should be done in moderation, says Rew Sparks.

"For men, this is average 1 to 2 drinks per day and for women, this is about 1 drink per day," she says.

Likewise, Rosen also suggests cutting back on added sugars and inflammatory oils, which may increase oxidative stress and negatively affect the gut, contributing to mood disorders. You should also limit caffeinated foods, such as coffee, at least 8 hours before bed, as that interferes with sleep. And, missed sleep can impact depression.

What This Means For You

Aim to have at least 250 grams (4 servings) of vegetables and fruit in your diet each day, not only for the many health benefits but also to decrease the risk of developing depression. And if you are struggling with signs of depression including low mood, insomnia, feelings of hopelessness, lack of energy, and more, talk to a healthcare provider. Together, you can develop a treatment plan that works for you.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Saghafian F, Malmir H, Saneei P, Milajerdi A, Larijani B, Esmaillzadeh A. Fruit and vegetable consumption and risk of depression: accumulative evidence from an updated systematic review and meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Br J Nutr. 2018;119(10):1087-1101. doi:10.1017/S0007114518000697

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By Cara Rosenbloom, RD
 Cara Rosenbloom RD is a dietitian, journalist, book author, and the founder of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company in Toronto, ON.