Kitchen Vegetables

Food Is Mental Health Medicine?

The logic of trying to turn food into medicine simply escapes us. The week, the Washington Post has a new twist on food as medicine – telling us to eat our greens if we want better mental health. It leaves us with mixed feelings.

On one hand, we’re all in on the concept of finding joy in wholesome, good food – especially fresh vegetables prepared simply and well. But on the other, framing it as some sort of psychoactive substance to consume for a boost in mental health vaguely repels us. We don’t know many children or adults who respond well when admonished to eat their vegetables lest bad things happen to them.

It sucks the joy right out of a meal.

Insights from Research

A big positive in this reporting is a review of some of the science that links mental health outcomes to consumption of vegetables. They include a lot of observational research and they make it clear enough that this type of research has its limitations. “Do happy people eat vegetables or do vegetables make people happy?”

But they also include an RCT from the IU School of Public Health by Angela De Leon. She and her colleagues randomly assigned 75 adults to receive eight weeks of fresh and frozen vegetables. They also visited the study center twice weekly and completed a happiness scale assessment at the start and after eight weeks. The control group got all the same attention, but no vegetables.

The researchers found that happiness scores improved significantly in the vegetable group, but not in the control group. De Leon et al wrote:

“The current study demonstrates for the first time that increasing vegetable consumption to meet DGA recommendations improves mean subjective happiness scores.”

Chalk one up for the joy of vegetables. Of course, some of the good feelings might come from the gift of free food. The study authors point this out. Either way, the food is bringing joy.

Finding Joy in Food

To be sure, there is joy to be found in good food, especially fresh vegetables, and in healthy ways to enjoy it all. But that joy does not come because good food is some kind of medicine for mental health. It comes because food has a role that is much more than a substance we consume for health benefits. It nourishes our bodies, gives us strength and vitality, but most of all, brings us together to enjoy it.

This is the role of food. Not medicine.

Click here for the article in the Post and here for the study by De Leon et al. For yet another study referenced in the Post, click here.

Kitchen Vegetables, painting by Thomas Stuart Smith / WikiArt

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May 24, 2023