Insights and Impact

Brain Food 


human brain made from fruits and vegetables

An apple a day keeps the doctor away—and depression at bay, says Ulka Agarwal, psychiatrist at AU’s Student Health Center.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates of anxiety and depression among US adults jumped about 400 percent from April 2020 to August 2021, with men, Asian Americans, young people, and parents of minor children accounting for some of the sharpest increases. Up to one in three adults reported experiencing symptoms of depression in the 18 months since COVID turned our world upside down. 

As the pandemic stretches into its third year, Agarwal, who’s published seven journal articles on the effects of plant-based, or vegan, diets on mental and physical health, says it’s never been more important to mind our peas and carrots. 

“When people switched to a plant-based diet for 18 weeks, they saw improvements in depression, anxiety, and productivity. They lost an average of 11 pounds and saw their blood sugar and cholesterol plummet, and some people even reversed their diabetes diagnoses,” Agarwal says of her research. “Plant-based diets don’t just spot treat; they will treat everything.”

Agarwal doesn’t advocate swapping Prozac for produce: “A plant-based diet is really an adjunct treatment; we’re not talking about replacing medications and therapy.” But she says eating food in its most natural form—an apple instead of applesauce—and consuming equal portions of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes like beans and lentils boosts metabolism, reduces inflammation, and aids in sleep, all of which affect mood. 

“Eating plant-based is also an exercise in mindfulness, says Agarwal, former director of clinical research and chief medical officer at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in DC. “You have to stop and think at least three times a day: What’s in my food? How am I going to prepare this? Once you start thinking about what you’re eating, you start to realize that everything else in your life is a choice. And you become more thoughtful about all the other things that you do.” 

While she’s staunchly in favor of spinach, kale, and other folate-rich dark, leafy greens, Agarwal says there’s no one right way to incorporate them into your diet.

“It’s helpful to think about how you’ve made changes in the past. Did you dip a toe or jump all the way in?” Whether eating plant-based once a week or giving up meat cold turkey, “as long as you have a colorful symphony of fruits and vegetables on your plate, you’re better off than you were before.”