Australian researchers at Deakin University recently studied 3000 adolescents to find out if their diet influenced their mental health. Controlling for many other possible contributing factors, they found that adolescents who ate more fruits and vegetables had better mental health in the long-term than their compatriots, who shunned produce and ate more processed foods.

“Food as medicine” is a common mantra heard in some nutrition and alternative health circles. Of course, food can literally be medicine, such as oranges for scurvy or whole grains for a vitamin B deficiency. Food can also act as medicine for chronic diseases like diabetes, where a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and health proteins can reduce or reverse symptoms. Compounds in green tea, red wine, garlic, and many other foods and drinks are being researched for disease-fighting properties.

So do fruits and vegetables have a compound in them that fights depression?

I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else knows for sure, either. What I do know is that increased intake of fruits and vegetables has been correlated with lower weight, prevention of chronic disease, better intestinal health, better long-term ocular health, and many other positive physical outcomes. So if studies are suggesting that better mental health is bundled into that package, I’m sold.  

If you have an adolescent with mental health problems, or you think you might, an apple is not a substitute for a visit to a mental health professional. Likewise, no matter how many salads your teen eats, he or she still need to take their prescribed medications. A teen with mental health issues needs continued care from a licensed provider.

However, if you feel you have a mentally healthy adolescent, and want to keep them that way, increasing their fruit and vegetable intake won’t hurt. One study does not make for a written-in-stone conclusion, but considering all the physical benefits, why not wager on adding some mental benefits as well?

How do you get a teen to eat more fruits and vegetables, if they don’t like them? You can “sneak” them into meals, but your teen is most likely leaving the house fairly soon, and it would be nice if they could consciously enjoy some fruits and vegetables and carry those habits into adulthood.

I would recommend simply having it around. Teens are notorious for “grabbing a snack” as opposed to preparing something. Have bowls of apples, oranges, and/ or bananas on the counter. Have some cut watermelon or celery with peanut butter in the refrigerator. If you make their lunch, put in some carrot or jicama sticks. And if you are lucky enough to be able to cook breakfast and/ or dinner, throw greens and chopped veggies into your dishes. Try making vegetable sushi, pumpkin oatmeal, or kale chips (I know moms who swear by these.)

Fresh produce can be expensive. If you’re on a tight budget, look for sales on frozen and canned fruits and vegetables (they’re plenty nutritious!), and stock up. Get fruits canned in juice or water, not syrup, and get frozen vegetables without the fancy butter sauces.

If your teen won’t touch fruits or vegetables, simply set a good example by eating 5 servings (or more!) of fruits and vegetables daily. You might be surprised on how your teen picks up your habits just by observing you out of the corner of their eye. And if they don’t- well, multiple studies have shown that adult diet can affect mental health, so your role modeling will at the very least benefit you.