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Can peas replace Prozac pills and apples replace Abilify tablets? Hippocrates, who believed in the healing power of nature, may have been on to something when he advised us nearly 25 centuries ago to make food our medicine and medicine our food.

In the intervening centuries, though, we seem to have ignored the first half of Hippocrates’s counsel—to make food our medicine—and misinterpreted his advice to make medicine our food. How else can we explain the record number of Americans who are taking prescription drugs to treat depression? Eleven percent of Americans—over 34 million people, from adolescents to seniors—take an antidepressant drug on a regular basis, an astounding 400 percent increase since 1988.

Drug manufacturers—responsive to the rising demand for depression treatments—have created an extensive cafeteria of drugs. The National Institute of Mental Health website lists over 50 approved antidepressant and antianxiety drugs—from Abilify to Zyprexa, from Anafranil to Wellbutrin.

The price for relief from depression through consumption of prescription drugs is high. Wallets get thinner (the drugs are not cheap), and waistlines get thicker. According to experts, 25 percent of patients who take an antidepressant drug gain 10 or more pounds. Jack E. Fincham, PhD, RPh, professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Missouri, states, “This is clearly a problem for the majority of drugs used to treat depression, and while it doesn’t occur with every drug or for every person, when it does happen, it can be a significant problem.”

But what if a straightforward dietary change could chase away the blues? What if relief from depression and a heightened sense of well-being were as simple as eating seven servings of fruits and vegetables each day? What if food became our medicine?

Professor Sarah Stewart-Brown, a public health researcher at Warwick Medical School in England, and professor Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick in England, studied the eating habits of 80,000 people in Britain and were surprised to find that “happiness and mental health are highest among people who eat seven portions of fruit and vegetables a day.” They also noted that happiness did not increase when more than seven portions were consumed and declined when fewer than seven were consumed.

Understanding this cause-and-effect relationship between mood and food, however, requires further research. For example, does the consumption of seven daily servings of fruits and vegetables relieve depression and produce an enhanced state of well-being? Or is the reverse true? That is, do individuals who feel good about themselves pay more attention to their lifestyle choices, including eating a healthier fare, than others do?

While we wait for the next insight from this research, we might find it prudent to examine our own eating habits and experiment with the seven-a-day regimen. With obesity on the rise and consumption of fruits and vegetables on the decline in the United States, clearly we have room for improvement. Excluding french fries, Americans (adults and children) consume only two to four portions of fruits and vegetables each day. 

Adding more fruits and vegetables certainly won’t harm our bodies. And by making food our medicine, some of us might even be able to reduce our dependence on antidepressant drugs once we naturally view the world in a brighter, happier light.

Photo Credit: George Alexander on Flickr.

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