Spend a few minutes online and you’ll easily find yourself in a pool of overflowing advice, regarding everything from our nutrition choices to our psychological well-being. Even though the internet can feed us heaps of confusing information about how to live a healthier life, science continues to show that, often, the simpler your habits are, the happier you’ll find yourself.
According to a new meta-analysis study published by University of Manchester researchers, there is a clear link between our dietary choices and our mood. The findings, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, reveal that when it comes to our daily food intake, eating healthy, minimally processed foods can lead to increased happiness and improved mental well-being.
The researchers looked at data from 45,826 total participants, analyzing a series of randomized controlled trials to investigate the connection between dietary choices and mood. The results revealed that when participants began incorporating foods into their diets that were rich in fiber, low in sugar, and non-processed, they started to see a decline in symptoms of depression and anxiety.
“The overall evidence for the effects of diet on mood and mental well-being had up to now yet to be assessed,” study author Joseph Firth, Ph.D., said in a press release. “But our recent meta-analysis has done just that; showing that adopting a healthier diet can boost people’s mood.”
While important to note that of the 16 trials, most were samples of people with non-clinical depression, the reductions in negative emotions are significant. “Just making simple changes is equally beneficial for mental health,” Firth explains. “Eating more nutrient-dense meals… while cutting back on fast-foods and refined sugars appears to be sufficient for avoiding the potentially negative psychological effects of a ‘junk food’ diet.” In short: By thinking about your diet in simple terms — based on how ingredients make you feel, you can make changes that will be beneficial for your own well-being.
Other studies have suggested similar ties between healthier food choices and well-being, and research in the field continues. One 2017 Cambridge study found that making healthy nutritional choices can have positive effects on human behavior and mindset. Other findings have indicated that eating a Mediterranean diet can help prevent depression.
Firth says that in his team’s research, he found the gendered component of the results to be quite significant. “The most surprising aspect to me was the stark difference in results between men and women,” he tells Thrive. “Specifically, dietary interventions for female samples saw significant improvements in depressive symptoms.” Firth says researchers need to delve into the reasons behind the contrast, as males in the study did not see such significant improvements, but the findings may help us better understand the individualization of our mental health.
The convoluted trove of online health advice can feel overwhelming, but Firth’s study proves that finding a diet to improve your mood is less complicated than most think. The main takeaway from the research comes down to selecting whole foods, vegetables, and non-processed ingredients when you can — and at the end of the day, eat what nourishes your body, and makes you feel your best.
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