More than 31% of the U.S. population will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Though some people are genetically predisposed to these conditions, lifestyle factors can also trigger their onset, and according to new research from the University of Toronto, avoiding fruits and vegetables might be one of those triggers. 

A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found people who consumed fewer than three sources of fruits and vegetables daily were 24% more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder

How does the diet affect anxiety?

Researchers from the University of Toronto analyzed the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, which includes 26,991 adults between 45 and 85 years old. They used the data to determine which lifestyle factors might affect or lead to anxiety disorders. 

Aside from gender, marital status, income, immigrant status, and other health issues, researchers looked at the daily diets of participants. Women who followed a Western diet—which according to the study is high in refined grains, sugary products, and processed foods—were found to be “significantly more likely to have an anxiety disorder compared to those with a balanced diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, and whole grains.” 

The latter diet is most closely related to a Mediterranean diet, which we already know has an abundance of health benefits, but the emphasis on fruits and veggies seemed to have the greatest effect. 

“For those who consumed less than three sources of fruits and vegetables daily, there was at least a 24% higher odds of anxiety disorder diagnosis,” said lead author of the study Karen Davison, Ph.D., MSc, R.D.Article continues below

Why does diet affect anxiety?

One potential reason fruit and veggie consumption influences anxiety, according to Davison, is the link between healthy diet and body composition measures. “Increased body fat may be linked to greater inflammation,” she said, and some research has associated inflammation with anxiety disorders. 

“As levels of total body fat increased beyond 36%, the likelihood of anxiety disorder was increased by more than 70%,” said co-author Jose Mora-Almanza. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, adults should be eating at least 1½ to 2 cups of fruit, and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables per day. But only one in 10 adults are meeting those guidelines

Prioritizing a healthy, balanced diet might decrease the high rates of anxiety disorders, which will affect at least one-tenth of the global population, according to Davison.

“Our findings suggest comprehensive approaches that target health behaviors, including diet…may help minimize the burden of anxiety disorders among middle-aged and older adults.” 

Incorporating more fruits and veggies into your daily diet can promote healthy aging in other ways too, by delaying the development of Alzheimer’s and even mitigating some symptoms of menopause