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Good Mood Foods: How Diet Affects Happiness

Lani Muelrath is a bestselling author, speaker, and TV host known for her expertise in plant-based, active, mindful living. This article is adapted from her newest book,  The Mindful Vegan, a 30-day plan for shedding old thinking patterns and living more joyfully with food.

If you are presently piling plenty of colorful plants on your plate, you are already at a better mood advantage. Research tells us that plant-based diets are associated with healthier mood states. The more fruits and vegetables people eat, the happier, less depressed, and more satisfied they are with their lives. Today, we’ll focus on how, grounded in your biochemistry, eating more plants and eliminating animals and their products from your diet creates greater mental well-being and resilience.

Plantified Plate = Mood Elevator Up

A recent study of nearly one thousand men and women examined the mood impact of obtaining dietary antioxidants. Antioxidants are health- and disease-protective bioactive chemical compounds produced by plants. In the study, those who ate three or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day reported significantly greater optimism than those who ate less. Eating lots of veggies also bumps up the B vitamins in your diet, positively affecting mood states.

Another recent, large-population, multi-wave study—taking place five times over the course of nine years—focused on the impact of fruit and vegetable intake on depression, anxiety, and mental health disorders.

Results were consistent across all five waves: greater fruit and vegetable consumption was positively associated with reduced depression, less psychological distress, fewer mood and anxiety problems, and improved perceived mental health.

Study after study corroborates. A large Swiss survey reported significant associations between higher fruit and vegetable consumption and reduced distress levels. People who ate less than the five-servings-a-day recommendation had a higher likelihood of reporting stress and anxiety than those who didn’t. A recent study on women’s health from Australia followed over six thousand women. The findings? Reduced depression among women who simply ate more than two pieces of fruit a day. And the benefit increased when accompanied by higher intakes of vegetables.

Can Cutting Meat Improve Your Mood?

We get it—eating more plants boosts your mood. What if we look at it another way—cutting out the meat? How might that affect your state of mind? As it turns out, emotional resiliency and elevated mood states arise for more reasons than simply because you know you are doing the right thing. There’s a deeper biochemical component that underpins well-being that comes with veganizing your plate.

According to research, reduced intake of animals and their products has mood benefits in addition to those that come with a robust daily intake of fruits and vegetables. Avoiding meat, fish, and poultry leads to more frequent reports of positive states of mind. And vegans report lower anxiety and less stress than omnivores.

Inflammation and Increased Risk of Depression

Putting it all together, the Western diet—characterized by scanty consumption of plant foods, yet heavy on the animal products—is associated with increased risk of depression. Depression is related to inflammation in the body. Arachidonic acid, found only in animal products, is a precursor to inflammation. Research shows that high intakes of arachidonic acid promote changes in the brain that can disturb mood.

Here’s how it works. By eating chicken, eggs, and other animal products high in arachidonic acid, a series of chemical reactions is triggered in your body that results in inflammation. When inflammation reaches the brain, feelings of anxiety, stress, hopelessness, and depression follow. No wonder people who avoid animal flesh and products report a happier, more positive mood. And plant foods—to the rescue, once again—naturally lower inflammation due to their naturally high antioxidant content, antioxidants being one of nature’s most powerful anti-inflammatory agents.

Nutrients provide the biological building blocks for neurotransmitters—the chemicals in your brain that deeply affect how you think and feel. When you aren’t eating enough vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, polyphenols, and related nutrients found in plants—known in this context as neuronutrients—you can’t make adequate mood-enhancing transmitters. These gems of plant nutrition, by the way, are the same goodies proved to be brain protective against Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Diets rich in the kind of saturated fats that are abundant in animal products—and deficient in antioxidants and vitamins—appear to promote the onset of the disease, whereas diets rich in plant-plentiful vitamins, antioxidants, and polyphenols suppress its onset. All the colors plants bring to your plate are evidence of the nutrients your brain needs for better disposition. No wonder just seeing your luncheon salad makes your mood brighten.

Author Sources:

1. Bonnie L. Beezhold, Carol S. Johnston, and Deanna R. Daigle, “Vegetarian Diets Are Associated with Healthy Mood States: A Cross-Sectional Study in Seventh Day Adventist Adults,” Nutrition Journal 9, no. 26 (2010), doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-26.
2. Ciara Rooney, Michelle C. McKinley, and Jayne V. Woodside, “The Potential Role of Fruit and Vegetables in Aspects of Psychological Well-Being: A Review of the Literature and Future Directions,” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 72, no. 4 (2013): 420–32,
3. Juila Boehm et al., “Association between Optimism and Serum Antioxidants in the Midlife in the United States Study,” Psychosomatic Medicine 75, no. 1 (2013): 2–10,
4. Ulka Agarwal, “A Multicenter Randomized Controlled Trial of a Nutrition Intervention Program in a Multiethnic Adult Population in the Corporate Setting Reduces Depression and Anxiety and Improves Quality of Life: The GEICO Study,” American Journal of Health Promotion 29, no. 4 (2015),
5. Seanna E. McMartin, Felice N. Jacka, and Ian Colman, “The Association between Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Mental Health Disorders: Evidence from Five Waves of a National Survey of Canadians,” Preventative Medicine 56, no. 3–4 (2013): 225–30, doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2012.12.016.
6. Aline Richard et al., “Associations between Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Psychological Distress: Results from a Population-Based Study,” BMC Psychiatry
endnotes 15, no. 213 (2015),
7. S. Mihrshahi, A. J. Dobson, and G. D. Mishra, “Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Prevalence and Incidence of Depressive Symptoms in Mid-age Women: Results from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health,” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 69, no. 5 (2014): 585–91,
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10. Gary C. Smith et al., “Effect of Transport on Meat Quality and Animal Welfare of Cattle, Pigs, Sheep, Horses, Deer, and Poultry,”, December 2004,
11. Felice N. Jacka et al., “Western Diet Is Associated with a Smaller Hippocampus: A Longitudinal Investigation,” BMC Medicine 13, no. 215 (2015),
12. Bonnie L. Beezhold and Carol S. Johnston, “Restriction of Meat, Fish, and Poultry in Omnivores Improves Mood: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial,” Nutrition Journal 11, no. 9 (2012),
13. Michel Lucas et al., “Inflammatory Dietary Pattern and Risk of Depression among Women,” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 36 (February 2014): 46–53,
14. Beezhold, Johnston, and Daigle, “Vegetarian Diets.”
15. Balenahalli N. Ramesh et al., “Neuronutrition and Alzheimer’s Disease,” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 19, no. 4 (2010): 1123–39,; Kanti Bhooshan Pandey and Syed Ibrahim Rizvi, “Plant Polyphenols as Dietary Antioxidants in Human Health and Disease,” Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity 2, no. 5 (2009): 270–78,

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January 25, 2018