How Eating Healthy Can Make You Happy
There are multiple choices that we make everyday. Many of these choices we make on impulse without giving them too much thought. Usually that can be a good thing; if we spent too much time every day evaluating every decision that we need to make, we would get very little done. But sometimes not considering our options and their consequences can have effects that we never even thought were possible. This is particularly true when it comes to choosing what we eat.
We already are very well aware of the impact that our food choices have on our physical health. But what we may not realize is that our food choices also have an impact on our happiness. I’m not talking about the instantaneous (and short-lived) happiness that comes from satisfying a craving, or eating something really rich and decadent that we know we might eventually regret. I’m talking about certain foods that have chemicals that actually affect our moods. By choosing to eat some of these foods everyday, and making a conscious, thoughtful decision to include them in our meals, we can have a positive impact on our sustained level of happiness.
Eating Fruits and Vegetables Everyday
In a recent study performed at the University of Warwick (England) and the University of Queensland (Australia), scientists found out after tracking the eating habits of 12,000 adults over several years that by adding one serving of fruit or vegetable to their diets, they were able to noticeably increase their levels of happiness. Happiness benefits were noted for each portion of fruit or vegetable (up to eight) that were added to their daily diets. Just how happy did these people become? Researches concluded that taking individuals who ate virtually no fruits or vegetables and getting them to eat eight servings per day increased their happiness in an equivalent manner as taking someone who is unemployed and getting them a job. While the improvements did not occur overnight (it took approximately 24 months to reach the full benefits in happiness), it was an amazing byproduct from all the other health benefits that these individuals were also experiencing due to the change in their diets.
Eliminating Processed Food from Our Diets
Highly processed foods are high in fats and sugars and low in nutrients. Many of the nutrients that have been stripped from processed foods are the very ones that our brains need for development, growth, health and normal function. Without them, our brains and our moods suffer. A recent study of over 7,000 Australian adolescents showed that after eliminating all other potential factors, adolescents with the unhealthiest diets containing the highest amounts of processed foods were 79% more likely to suffer from depression. That is a huge difference that could be scientifically attributed to just a single dietary decision that these adolescents were making everyday.
Replacing Trans-fats with Healthy Fats
Not all fats are created equal. The physiological harm that can be caused to our bodies by trans-fats have already been well documented. But there is also research that shows that trans-fats can be equally damaging to our mental health and our happiness. One such study conducted in Spain looked at the dietary fatty acid intake of 12,000 adults and correlated it to their levels of depression. Researches found out that the consumption of trans-fats had a strong correlation with an increase in levels of depression, up to a 42% increase over the course of six years. On the other hand, inverse associations were found with healthy fats, namely monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and (specifically) olive oil. This simple dietary change doesn’t even require eating less fat; it just requires us to be more intelligent and make better choices about the types of fats that we put into our bodies.
Adding More Omega-3 to Our Diets
Not only are not all fats created equal, there are some fats that we need to seek out and make an effort to purposely include in our diets. These fats are specifically the ones that are high in the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. These extremely beneficial fats can be found in whole foods like seafood, fish, and pasture-raised meats, dairy and eggs. They can also be found in vegetarian foods like hemp seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, and seaweed. Including several servings of any of these foods in our weekly diet will do wonders for not only our heart health, but also for our mood and happiness level. Studies have shown that increased levels of omega-3 can significantly reduce the risk of brain disorders. These include a 10-year study of 54,000 American women conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health that showed that those participants with the highest levels of healthy omega-3 (and the lowest levels of unhealthy omega-6) in their diets were significantly less likely to suffer from depression.
Including the Following Nutrients in Our Daily Diets
There are several nutrients that are documented to (among other benefits) improve our brain health and also our mood and happiness. We should make sure that we are consuming enough of these nutrients everyday to maximize our happiness levels the easiest way possible: by being conscious about what we choose to eat. Here is the list. Are you eating enough of each of these?
Calcium, found in dark leafy greens and dairy foods, when paired with vitamin D can help with mood fluctuations in women.
Chromium, found in broccoli, grapes, and whole grains, increases the levels of serotonin, melatonin and norepinephrine in our brains. All these chemicals are involved in mood regulation.
Folate, found in dark leafy greens and legumes, supports the regulation of serotonin levels. When paired with vitamin B12, folate is used as a treatment for depression.
Iron, found in legumes and meat, is critical for the transport of oxygen in our blood and, therefore, for preventing fatigue. Untreated, low levels of iron can lead to loss of stamina and eventually to mood swings and depression.
Magnesium, found in nuts and soybeans, is another nutrient involved in the production of serotonin. Proper levels of magnesium can help prevent emotional swings and depression.
Vitamin B6, found in wild-caught fish and chickpeas, is involved in the production of neurotransmitters in our brains. Healthy levels of vitamin B6 help to regulate brain function, including moods and emotions.
Vitamin B12, found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, is involved in the production of red blood cells. Therefore, like folate, it is involved in the transport of oxygen through our bodies, and helps to prevent fatigue and depression.
Vitamin D, found in fortified dairy products, is produced by our bodies when we are exposed to sunlight. Low levels of vitamin D are more likely to occur during the winter months when there is less sunlight, and also in individuals who avoid the sun for health reasons. Making sure we have enough vitamin D in our diets will help to regulate our moods, particularly when sunlight is less plentiful.
Zinc, found in meat, seafood, nuts and seeds, performs several functions in the body, and has been found to help to prevent depression as well.