Farmers’ markets are an old idea enjoying new popularity. As of mid-2011, there were more than 7,100 farmers’ markets in the United States—a 17 percent increase from 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture
. (USDA). Along with a bagful of fruits and veggies, you may bring home bushels of mental health benefits from a trip to the farmers’ market.
Nourishing Your Brain
The fresh produce at a farmers’ market is as good for your brain as it is for the rest of your body. Soluble fiber—the type of fiber in oats, barley, legumes, and some fruits and vegetables—helps lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and therefore the risk for cardiovascular disease. “It may be protective against stroke,” says Rachel Begun, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Examples of fruits and vegetables that are particularly good sources of soluble fiber include blueberries, carrots, celery, cucumbers, and strawberries.”
Polyphenols—a particular group of plant chemicals—may help prevent neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. “Studies in cell cultures and animals show that polyphenols may protect neurons by reducing oxidative stress and cell damage,” says Begun. “Examples of fruits rich in polyphenols include apples, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, red grapes, and strawberries.”
Monounsaturated fats—a type of fat that’s good for the heart—may be beneficial for the brain as well. “There is preliminary research showing that replacing saturated and trans fats with monounsaturated fats may help improve cognitive function,” Begun says. “Standout sources include avocados and olives.”
Building Your Bonds
Besides the nutritional benefits, there may be social and psychological ones as well. For one thing, a local farmers’ market is a natural place to rub shoulders with your neighbors. A whole branch of psychology, known as community psychology, has grown up around the notion that a sense of community is important for personal well-being. Connecting with those around you can promote a sense of belonging, a feeling that you matter, and a healthy trust in your neighbors.
Feeding Your Senses
A farmers’ market is a feast for the senses: the rich hue of berries, the sweet scent of peaches, the slight squish of a ripe tomato, the tempting tastes of jam and honey, the friendly hum of conversation. Research suggests that such sensory stimulation can help keep your brain young.
In fact, multisensory stimulation is sometimes used as a therapy for dementia. This approach makes structured use of lighting effects, music, aromas, and textured objects. Some studies have shown that it may improve thinking and mood in people with dementia, although others have not.
There’s stronger evidence that mental stimulation in general may help healthy people prevent or delay dementia. Research in mice genetically prone to Alzheimer’s-like disease has shown that a rich environment can boost their ability to form new neurons in the hippocampus—part of the brain that’s hit early and hard by Alzheimer’s. It can also reduce their levels of tau and beta amyloid—two proteins that form abnormal deposits in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Diversifying Your Diet
Dietary guidelines emphasize eating a variety of fruits and vegetables for better overall health. “When people—especially children—are familiar with foods, they’re more likely to try them,” says Begun. “I can’t think of a better way to become familiar with fruits and vegetables than by taking a trip to the farmers’ market. It’s a unique opportunity to speak directly with the people who produce our food and learn more about how it’s grown, when it’s at its peak, and how to prepare it.”
To find a farmers’ market near you, check the USDA’s online directory.
Linda Wasmer Andrews is a writer who specializes in health, psychology, and the intersection between the two. Follow her on Twitter. Like her on Facebook. Visit her online.